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Writer’s Insights: Why You Should Get Used to Split Infinitives

Writer’s Insights: Why You Should Get Used to Split Infinitives

There’s a stupid rule grammar purists cling to: “Don’t split an infinitive.”

This is well and fine, until you realize where this supposed rule came from.

What Is an Infinitive?

Let’s start with infinitives–what are they? Anyone who’s studied language knows they’re the “base” form of a verb. In English, infinitives are formed with “to”: “to be,” “to do,” “to make,” “to run,” and so on.

The idea about not splitting them means don’t stick words between “to” and the root of the verb. In many, many cases, this makes perfect sense, since sticking a word between them sounds awkward or doesn’t make much sense.

However, there are times when infinitives can (and should) be split. Unless you’re talking to a grammar purist, who will tell you it is a cardinal sin to split an infinitive. You should never, ever, ever do it.

(Some extremists take this further and argue you should never break up a verb phrase–like what I did in the previous sentence with “should do.” These purists would have you arrange that sentence as “You never, ever, ever should do it” or “You should do it never.”)

Why It Doesn’t Work

The idea is ludicrous, though, because English infinitives are inherently splittable. They’re composed of two words, which means they can (and often are) broken up. We split infinitives in speech all the time. It’s natural, normal, and easy.

"To boldly go where no man has gone" uses a split infinitive.

Star Trek’s famous tagline uses a split infinitive.

There are languages where this isn’t possible. In Latin, for example, you cannot have split infinitives. Latin infinitives are single words; it’s impossible to deconstruct them.

Which, by the way, is where the rule comes from. See, back in the 1700s, some guy thought Latin was the height of all languages, and English–a roguish, ugly language–should conform to Latin standards.

Which means no split infinitives, because you can’t do it in Latin.

The flaw in this logic should be obvious: English is not Latin and vice-versa, which means the grammar is necessarily different. Latin uses a highly structured case system; English has a very simple case system. You do stuff in Latin you cannot do in English, and you do stuff in English you can’t do in Latin.

It’s like telling a Finnish speaker to make their language conform to Swedish grammar rules. It doesn’t. Finnish is an entirely different language group with an entirely different grammar. Trying to apply Swedish grammar rules to it not only doesn’t work, it’s stupid.

So trying to apply Latin “grammar rules” to English is similarly stupid.

A Problematic Rule

What’s the biggest problem with this? It’s that keeping infinitives and verbal phrases together sometimes sounds very awkward. It sometimes results in wordier, clunky sentences. It doesn’t flow, it doesn’t read naturally.

In some cases, it actually impedes understanding.

Yet some people insist you cannot have split infinitives.

So, let’s take a look at some examples, from drafts of my own writing. I usually ignore this “rule.” If the writing is particularly formal or academic, or if the client or the publisher has used it or requested it themselves, I stick to it. But for my own writing, and as a general rule of thumb, I break this one all the time.

 

The Originals

He wishes was drunk enough to simply pass out. He hardly sleeps, tossing and turning, his stomach churning. He’s drunk, he tells himself, just drunk. Not nearly drunk enough.

The professor has to basically wrestle the paper out of Reese’s hands when fifteen minutes are up.

The Rewrite Test

Here, we have two instances of split infinitives. In both cases, I’ve inserted an adverb between “to” and the rest of the verb. (If you follow advice about exorcising adverbs from your writing, you’ll never need to worry about this, clearly.)

In either case, I could avoid the split infinitive: “He wishes he was drunk enough simply to pass out”; “the professor basically has to wrestle the paper …”

We could make an argument for the second one; switching it doesn’t sound unnatural, and it avoids the split infinitive. Everybody’s happy then, right?

The first instance, however, doesn’t loan itself to the solution quite so easily: “simply” can precede the verb phrase “to pass out,” but it doesn’t have the same impact. While it may not interfere with our understanding, it doesn’t sound quite natural.

Splitting Verb Phrases

Some people like to take the supposed rule even further and suggest verb phrases should never be split up. You can take this version of the rule to task rather quickly. Just look at the previous sentence: I split up a verb phrase.

We’re all guilty of this one, on a fairly frequent basis. Why? Because splitting up verb phrases is actually very natural in English.

An Example

They sit there for a moment more. Gabriel stares at the wall, uncomprehending. The world seems to simply spin on by.


A hand on his shoulder, and he looks up into Mel’s warm, brown eyes. “We called you a cab,” she says, and he glances back at Connor, who helps him up to his feet, steadies him. Kat and JT and Brody are busy cleaning Reese up off the floor.

“You two are way too drunk,” Mel explains, and Gabriel tries to listen to her voice as it swims through his ears, murky and muddled. “You’re both underage, the RA asked us to get you out of here before someone calls the cops.”

“Okay,” Gabriel breathes, “sure. Yeah.” He ducks his head in a nod, regrets it as the world spins ’round.


[...]


They arrive at Reese’s, and Gabriel tumbles out of the car, helps Reese clamber out. Reese collapses on his lawn, and Gabriel’s thinking about leaving him there, getting back into the cab and going home, when he realizes the cabby has shut the doors and locked them.

He holds up his hands, but the driver rolls down the window and says, “Sorry, your friend paid fare but only this far—and I ain’t risking ya throwing up in the back of my car. Call someone else if you need.”

Then he winds the window up and speeds off, and Gabriel’s left on Reese’s lawn with Reese gasping like a dying fish, before he finally rolls over and pukes.


Examining the Evidence

So there’s not a lot of split verb phrases in this excerpt, but we can see at least two of them, highlighted in red. The first is indeed a split infinitive: “to spin” has “simply” interjected into it, breaking up the infinitive.

The second one is a broken verb phrase: “winds the window up.” We could just as easily write “winds up the window,” which puts the verb phrase back together. (“Wind up” is understood as a single motion here; “winds” on its own doesn’t make much sense in this context.)

So why bother breaking it? Well, simply put, “winds the window up” sounds just as natural, if not more natural, as “winds up the window.” Both are equally valid English phrases; one simply sounds better than the other.

And this is the case for split infinitives and split verb phrases alike. Splitting sounds more natural. When native English-speakers talk, we tend to split our infinitives. So long as it doesn’t impeded understanding, what’s the issue?

There is none, actually, and that’s is why this rule needs to go the way of the dinosaur.


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