Tag Archives: infinitives

To Go Boldly: On Splitting the Infinitive (Yes, Captain Picard, You Can Do It)

An infinitive, if you’ve forgotten, is the pure form of a verb: to swordfight, to fly, to escape. And Mrs. Grundy, your sixth-grade English teacher, probably lectured you time and again on not splitting those infinitives, that is, on not separating the “to” from the verb.

The result may have been more than one unnatural-sounding sentence, and Captain Picard may have said something like this: “To go boldly where no one has gone before!”

This not only sounds forced, but it’s unnecessary. It is actually perfectly fine to split an infinitive if the sentence sounds better by doing so.

So who came up with this idea? Apparently, a man named Henry Alford is to blame. In his 1866 book A Plea for the Queen’s English, he wrote,

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

And that’s it – the entirety of his argument. He was wrong: splitting the infinitive is and has always been entirely common usage in English. Somehow, though, this got picked up and taught, and yet obeying it results in foolish turns of phrase, such as in the following example:

The wandering preacher taught the townsfolk to love unconditionally their neighbors.

Frankly, that’s just silly and pedantic. Your goal in writing is to sound natural, and attempting to split an infinitive this way only causes the reader to stumble and wonder what you actually meant.

My advice is the same as every other self-respecting grammarian’s: Save the meaning and sound of a sentence before hewing to a rule that no writer actually follows.