Know when it’s OK to use a split infinitive in a sentence?


What’s an infinitive? “To do” and “to go” are infinitives – that is, consisting of “to” and the base form of the verb.

A split infinitive is when a word or phrase comes in between “to” and the base form of the verb. For example, “to quickly leave” or “to not fail the test.”

There’s an old school rule of grammar that says we should never split our infinitives.  Nowadays, this is considered a myth or superstition.

Obama InaugurationThe most recent instance of this myth is during President Barack Obama’s oath taking. The U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice who was administering the oath changed the position of an adverb in a line that should have correctly read,

solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.

Instead, the Chief Justice said,

solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.

In a January 21, 2009 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Steven Pinker (a psychology professor at Harvard and the chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary), says “any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of English phrasing. ” He goes on to explain:

The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive because it consists of a single word, like dicere, “to say.” But in English, infinitives like “to go” and future-tense forms like “will go” are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to interdict adverbs from the position between them.

A famous use of a split infinitive is in the opening sequence of the Star Trek TV series:

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission–to boldly go where no man has gone before.

According to the old rule, this is ungrammatical. The adverb “boldly” shouldn’t be inserted in between “to” and the verb “go”.  But do these versions sound any better?

Its five-year mission–to go boldly where no man has gone before.

Not quite the fluidity of the original (we’d call it indayog in Filipino), although it’s not too bad.

Its five-year mission–boldly to go where no man has gone before.

Sounds terrible.


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