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Grammar: can I split an infinitive?

"You must never split an infinitive!" This is one big, fat MYTH* peddled by ignorant do-gooders. The facts of the prosecution's case are unsound and based on folk etymology.

The "incorrectness" of the so-called split infinitive is – how to break this gently – a myth, a folk etymology. Trust me, every authority on English usage agrees, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The view that such a construction is "ugly" is only an individual opinion, like saying "I don't like Shakespeare", which is not the same thing as right and wrong.

* There is nothing ungrammatical about the linguistic construction that is wrongly labelled "a split infinitive". The whole concept dates from a popular grammarian from the 1700s named Robert Lowth, who wrongly claimed that since infintives aren't split in Latin then it is inelegant to do so in English. But this is false because, for a start, English uses prepositions rather than fused endings like Latin infinitives – it is an apples/oranges comparison. Second, English is a Germanic language, not a Romance (Latinate) language so the two are in no way related. Third, the 'to' in 'to eat' is no way fused part of an infinitive (nominative case) word – it is a separate particle preceding it. Therefore, 'I want to really give it a go' is as pefectly acceptable as non-'to' infinitive forms, such as 'I will really give it a go'.

There remains, however, a lot of wrongly held and ignorant prejudice against it due to what ammounts to a vicious linguistic rumour. Those who dare use the legitimate and 'so-called split infinitive' still risk the wrath of the ignorant. So be on your guard but stand firm.

For more about this particular entry, you'll have to read chapter 07 of my popular grammar book The Joy of English. (Sorry to do this but I have, afterall, written a chapter in my book about this one.)

If you don't believe me, you can read more at the OED. They know a thing or two about the language called English.


About the author

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.