We’ve all heard the rule about not splitting infinitives, but does it actually have any validity? The producers of Star Trek clearly didn’t think so.
First of all, what exactly is an infinitive?
The infinitive is that form of the verb which is, quite simply, infinite. That’s to say, it’s not finite or limited in any way.
Here’s an example of a finite verb:
He reads the book.
In this sentence, the verb reads is limited in the following ways:
- Third person (he)
- Singular (he)
- Present tense
- Indicative mood (as opposed to subjunctive mood)
But the infinitive form of the verb – to read – is not limited in any way by person, number, tense or mood.
In a lot of languages infinitive verbs are single words. Here is the verb to read in five different languages:
- lire (French)
- lesen (German)
- leggere (Italian)
- leer (Spanish)
- legere (Latin)
But in English the infinitive is always two words:
- to read
- to walk
- to go
- to be
This means that in English we have the opportunity to insert another word, usually an adverb, between the to and the main verb.
Now the point of grammar is not to impose arbitrary rules on the spoken and written word. Grammatical rules describe how the language actually works and they should be followed in so much as they clarify meaning and aid comprehension. Bad grammar leads to misunderstanding and ambiguity. So my opinion on split infinitives is this:
There is no grammatical reason why you shouldn’t put an adverb in the middle of an English infinitive verb.
In his book The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker points out that there are occasions when putting the adverb in the middle of the infinitive is essential for a clear understanding.
He gives the following example sentences:
- The board voted immediately to approve the casino.
- The board voted to immediately approve the casino.
In the first case he argues that it’s ambiguous as to whether it was the voting or the approving that was immediate, although personally I would read that sentence as meaning that the voting was immediate.
In the second sentence it’s clear that it was the approving that was immediate. I would also argue that there is nothing wrong stylistically with the second version.
So there you have it folks. Go boldly forth and don’t be afraid to split those infinitives if it sounds natural to do so or if the meaning requires it.