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Express Yourself: Divided opinions about the split infinitive

Miscellaneous - 2nd March 2011

As you no doubt remember fondly from your schooldays, the infinitive is essentially the basic version of a verb, such as “to eat” or “to speak”. There is a very long-established convention, also familiar to every schoolchild, that the infinitive must always be preserved and never be ‘split’. Adverbs, this convention says, can gather respectfully around the infinitive but must never intrude into the middle, so that “to eat slowly” is fine but “to slowly eat” is forbidden.

Can anyone give a convincing defence for this convention? One argument, present at the birth of the notion of the ‘split infinitive’, is that other languages (and in particular the colossus that is Latin) never split infinitives, so why should English be any different? But in most languages, the infinitive is a single word (e.g. the French “manger” for “to eat” or the Italian “parlare” for “to speak”), which means splitting the infinitive is an impossible feat anyway. Imposing the grammar of one language onto another language is clearly an absurd notion that can only lead to a ridiculous hybrid, like saying that tennis must now be played with rugby balls.

We should embrace, not attack, the extraordinary flexibility, scope and variety of the English language. If, like the fine crew of the starship ‘Enterprise’, you want “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, why should you have “to go boldly” or “boldly to go” instead? The rhythm of the phrase alone clearly means “to boldly go” sounds much more powerful on the ear than the alternatives.

Language should exist to let you say exactly what you want to say, exactly as you wish to say it. If you want to boldly go ahead and split some infinitives, why should anyone stop you?