Splitting the Infinitive


This grammatical bugaboo has been plaguing writers for hundreds of years. In spite of rules to the contrary, there are times when a writer can “get away with it”. But how are you to know? The following guidelines will, hopefully, provide some answers.

Before getting to the “split infinitive”, it’s important to know what an infinitive” is. In the English language, an infinitive is the base form of a verb, often, but not always, preceded by the word “to” (e.g., (to) be, (to) go, (to) open, (to) write). An example without the word “to” is Help me [to] write the sentence. There are many more forms, but to keep this simple, this will do. Note: The word infinitive is derived from the Latin infinitus, which means “infinite”; hence the graphic above.

A split infinitive occurs when a word is inserted between the “to” and the verb. The contemporary example many authors cite is the mission of the star ship Enterprise in the Star Trek TV series: “To boldly go where no one has gone before”. The word “boldly” has split the infinitive “to go”. Traditionally, this has been a grammatical no-no. But how would this sentence sound if done “correctly”? ” To go boldly where no one has gone before”, would be correct, but it would not be quite as effective as the original. A lot of that, of course, is due to the fact that we’ve heard the original so many times that it’s part of our personal memories of the program. But beyond that, there’s a certain rhythm to the original that’s missing in the alternative.

To split or not to split an infinitive?

The tradition has been to not split an infinitive (did you see that infinitive split by not?). “Corrected”: The tradition has been not to spit an infinitive. However, some writers throw caution to the wind and do it anyway. One of the more famous quotes on this subject comes from the famous writer Raymond Chandler (from a letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly): “…when I split an infinitive, G-d damn it, I split it so it will remain split, …”.

Here’s an example of what can happen when someone tries to avoid splitting an infinitive:

  • Jeff and Karen decided to gradually get rid of all the souvenirs they’d collected over the years.

It’s obvious that Jeff and Karen have concluded that it’s time to get rid of their dust collectors, and that the removal process would take little by little. The word gradually clearly splits the infinite “to get rid of”. What would happen to the sentence, and the thought, if gradually were moved elsewhere?

  • Jeff and Karen decided gradually to get rid of all the souvenirs they’d accumulated.

This version tells us that the decision-making process evolved over time.

  • Jeff and Karen decided to get rid of all the souvenirs they’d accumulated gradually.

This version tells us that they’d accumulated the souvenirs little-by-little over time.

  • Jeff and Karen decided to get gradually rid of all the souvenirs they’d accumulated.

This version just sounds bad.

  • Jeff and Karen decided to get rid gradually of the all the souvenirs they’d accumulated.

This version is just about as bad as the previous version.

By re-reading each of the above alternatives to splitting the infinitive in the original sentence, one concludes that “rule” or no “rule”, the original seems to be the best way to write the given sentence, short of re-writing it completely.


So, the decision to split or not to split may come down to what you’ve learned, whether your writing is formal or informal, and who your intended audience will be.

Copyright © 2015 by Affordable Editing Services


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