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To Boldly Go Where Most English Speakers Have Gone Before: The Split Infinitive

To split the infinitive or to not split the infinitive, that is the question. Prescriptive grammars forbid the splitting of infinitives. Most English speaking students have been told by the grade school or high school grammar teacher to never split an infinitive. Even in college, I have had professors chastise me for splitting my infinitives. But, what exactly does it mean to split an infinitive? And, why is doing so such a grammatical sin?

The infinitive in English is a nonfinite verb form formed by the preposition or p-word to followed by the base form of the verb. The to functions as an infinitive marker. For example, to write, to eat, and to sleep are all English verbs in the infinitive form. To split an infinitive means to insert an intervening element between the preposition or p-word to and the base form of the infinitive. The most quoted example of a split infinitive in modern English is from the title sequence of the original Star Trek series: to boldly go where no man has gone before. So, why the disdain for something which sounds perfectly grammatical to the native ear and that native English speakers do all the time?

More Latin Grammar Models

The answer again is that pesky Latin grammar model. When the early grammarians were writing the “rules” for English grammar, they decided that, since infinitives in Latin could not be split by intervening elements, then infinitives in English also could not be split. Since Latin was the language to which other languages aspired, making such a rule seemed all well and good. However, those first grammarians failed to consider a rather important point: in Latin, the infinitive is a single word (similar to modern German or Spanish) and, therefore, cannot possibly be split. So, even though the form of the infinitive in English is not parallel to the form of the infinitive in Latin, a Latin grammar model is still (although falsely) applied to English.

The Position of Adverbs

The best argument for the splitting of infinitives is probably the position of adverbs in finite verb phrases. In English, a verb phrase modifier in the form of an adverb is most frequently inserted after the first auxiliary verb of a verb phrase. For example, the adverb not is placed after the modal verb (the first auxiliary) in the verb phrase could have been singing to form could not have been singing. The preposition or p-word to, which functions as an infinitive marker, can also be thought of as an auxiliary word in nonfinite verb phrases. Therefore, if the rule of inserting adverbs after the first auxiliary is to be followed, then the split infinitive is grammatically acceptable in English.

The rule against splitting infinitives in English is a false application of Latin grammar on the English language. Split infinitives are not only grammatically possible but, more importantly, frequently used by native English speakers. So, I will continue to defiantly split my infinitives and so should you.

References

DeCarrico, Jeanette S. 2000. The structure of English: Studies in form and function for language teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.
Justice, Laura M. & Helen K.Ezell. 2002. The syntax handbook: Everything you learned about syntax…but forgot. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.
O’Dwyer, Bernard T. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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