Style Corner: Split Infinitives

The last Style Corner blog covered a topic at the grammar end of the spectrum, the use of commas to divide two full sentences (or comma splice).

This time we go to the other end of the spectrum, to a topic that is not grammar, not really usage and not really even style. Yet it still still exercises an absurd, unwarranted degree of influence on people’s writing habits; even though it is no more than a nineteenth century myth.

Worse, it causes anxiety and uncertainty. Some style guides still frown on it, and some writers, consciously or unconsciously, avoid it; thankfully no longer The Economist, which now ‘allows’ it.

Many brave grammarian and journalist knights have tried to slay the split infinitive dragon, and this blog represents my own small sword stroke towards that end.

Oliver Kamm quotes Steven Pinker in trying to understand the mystery of why the split infinitive seems to exert such hold. Pinker calls it ‘pluralistic ignorance’, whereby most people accept publicly that there is no such rule but believe privately that others think there is – and therefore continue to kow-tow to it.

If this is true – and who would gainsay Pinker? – it’s a nonsensical state which only repeated metaphorical sword strokes – in verbal debate, on the screen, on the page and in the classroom – will eventually resolve.

Kamm actually points out that, strictly, there isn’t such a thing as an infinitive in English in the first place, in the sense that there is in French or Latin – a single word representing a verb’s original root form with no inflection.

French has manger, Latin has edere, English has to eat. Two words. And no rule saying they can never be prised apart.

Kamm goes on to explain the origin of the myth, an 1834 article in New England Magazine by a now-unknown author, which we will not dwell on, for fear of giving it too much credence.

Geoffrey Pullum notes that later grammarians such as Alford in the 1860s ignored or wilfully lied about the usage data; even though the use of modifiers such as adverbs between ‘to’ and infinitival verbs had been in common usage since the thirteenth century.

Let’s just be clear about it. You can split the infinitive in English. I’d go further, and say you almost have a responsibility to, except where that would give unintended or ambiguous meaning, or would fail the sound test.

All of the following usages are grammatically acceptable. In this example they may have marginal shades of different meaning, but they are equally understandable and correct, including 3.

1. She strenuously tried to deny the accusation
2. She tried strenuously to deny the accusation
3. She tried to strenuously deny the accusation
4. She tried to deny the accusation strenuously

In another example the shades of meaning are more marked, giving rise to two different interpretations depending on which usage you choose.

1. He gradually decided to change his career
2. He decided gradually to change his career
3. He decided to gradually change his career
4. He decided to change his career gradually

In this case 1. has one meaning (a gradual decision) while 3. and 4. have another (a gradual change). 2. is ambiguous. It could mean either a gradual decision or a gradual change. Yet that is the usage which a stickler, seeking to avoid the split infinitive in English, might choose. It would be a bad choice, because of the ambiguity.

Example 3. is sound grammatically, clear in meaning and acceptable to the ear.

Only if using a split infinitive results in unclarity or sounds wrong should you avoid it.