An Infinitive in Need of a Split


Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.

I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.

Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:

  • to be
  • to hear
  • to go
  • to listen

Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.

But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.

English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:

  • to boldly go
  • to never surrender
  • to slowly slip

I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.

Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:

We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.

The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:

We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.

A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.

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