I’ve always felt that – in some contexts – split infinitives are preferable to their unsplit counterparts. I’m not the only one. In 1996, 87% of the usage panel of The American Heritage Book of English Usage agreed that the following was acceptable:
“We expect our output to more than double.”
I’ve always felt like some sort of filthy grammatical deviant, sneaking the odd split infinitive into my writing where I felt it was the clearest wording to use. Sometimes your meaning is more precisely conveyed by using one. The line above is an example. You can’t move “more than” anywhere else in the sentence. The only way to avoid it is a complete rewrite. You could say something like “We expect our output to increase by more than 100%.” but this wouldn’t be as clear as not everyone understands percentages.
The second reason is stylistic. Rhythm sometimes calls for a split infinitive. As a Star Trek fan, I was delighted to read Henry Hitchings’ defence of “to boldly go” in his book, The Language Wars:
“The opening credits of Star Trek contain the best-known of all split infinitives. The mission of the Starship Enterprise is, we are informed, ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’ […] The rhythm here is important. The three-part structure ‘to explore… to seek… to go’ is disrupted by the abrupt introduction of ‘boldly’. Rather than being a bad thing, this accentuates our impression of the narrator’s excitement about the sheer boldness of the quest. The assonance of ‘to boldly go’ is more striking – not only because of its rhythm but also because less compressed – than that of ‘to go boldly’. ‘Boldly to go’ would just seem precious.”
Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars (2011)
Where did the rule originate?
So why do so many people think that split infinitives are a crime punishable by death? Or, at the very least, a snarky comment on Twitter.
The origin of this particular grammar rule is murky. There have been examples of split infinitives in literature since the emergence of modern English in the 13th century. William Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot and Robert Burns all used them, alongside many other classic names. Objections didn’t emerge until the mid-19th-century and the term ‘split infinitive’ wasn’t even coined until 1897.
During the 1840s to 1860s, a few writers of prescriptive guides to English complained about the construction, describing it as inelegant and encouraging avoidance where possible. Other writers took no issue with it. Nonetheless, “no split infinitives” was inserted into school grammar textbooks in England at some point in the Victorian period, and it stuck. Well into the 20th century students were soundly chastised for splitting their infinitives and that lesson stayed with them. In a BBC documentary on grammar in 1983, the comment was made:
“One reason why the older generation feel so strongly about English grammar is that we were severely punished if we didn’t obey the rules! One split infinitive, one whack; two split infinitives, two whacks; and so on.”
The Latin argument
The argument goes that you don’t split infinitives in Latin, so you shouldn’t in English. This argument is moot because you can’t split infinitives in Latin. In Latin, to go is ire. To read is legere. They’re one word in Latin, so inserting a word in the middle simply wasn’t an option. They’re two words in English, so you can. To quote that great linguist, Jeremy Clarkson:
“And since there’s a gap, why should we mind if Captain Kirk fills it?”
Jeremy Clarkson, Pah to Apostrophes! And dont do me dinner, I can eat my sons.
Henry Hitchings points out that nouns involving two words in English were often also one word in Latin. A girl was puella but no-one minds if we write ‘a clever girl’.
And yet, we’re still told to avoid them
Everyone from Oxford Dictionaries to university essay-writing guides for their students to grammar advice blogs says the same thing – ‘split infinitives are common in conversation and there’s no reason to avoid them in writing, but it’s safest to do so as so many people object to them’. This seems an utterly bonkers reason to me. All it does is perpetuate an issue that wasn’t an issue at all for a good 600 years from the 13th to 19th centuries. Isn’t it time to accept that a few Victorian school textbook writers got it wrong? Isn’t it time for writers to stop agonising over the clunky rewording of sentences to remove an offending split?
And with that rant over, I’m off to happily drink a glass of wine.