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The Split Infinitive

Proper Grammar or Myth?

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You may have heard this rule before: “Don’t split the infinitive in English.” To follow this old rule, sometimes you will end up creating some very awkward sentences.

The good news is that this rule is no longer as strict as it used to be. Even in academic writing, “broken” or ignored for the sake of clarity. Let’s examine what the split infinitive is, why you should no longer worry too much about it, and how you should break it to write clear sentences.

Infinitives in English

Infinitives in English have two forms, a bare infinitive (e.g., go, speak, work) and to-infinitives (to go, to speak, to work).

Bare Infinitives

In some constructions and particularly after modal verbs (e.g., can, could, may, would, should), you use bare infinitives.

  • The study should produce interesting results.
  • The storm should pass quickly and cause little damage.
  • Witnesses say the senator exited the room quickly.

To-Infinitives

In some constructions and after certain verbs (e.g., fail, want, mean, pretend), we use to-infinitives.

  • The study failed to produce interesting results.
  • The senator was meant to speak to the press, but he refused to stay after the hearing.
  • Children sometimes pretend to be characters in their favorite stories.

The “Rule”

The rule many writers have learned is simple: “Do not split infinitives in English,” that is, do not put anything between “to” and the verb.

Splitting To-infinitives with Adverbs

Examples

  • The patrons decided to generously donate substantial amounts of money to the cause.
  • Our mission is to quickly find practical solutions for your small business.
  • Voters wanted to never see that candidate run again.

If You Choose to Follow the “No Split Infinitive” Rule

If you decide to follow the “no split infinitive” rule, you generally end up with good sentences.

Revision 1

Split infinitive:

  • The senator wanted to quickly leave the room.

Split infinitive revised:

  • The senator wanted quickly to leave the room.
  • The senator wanted to leave the room quickly.

Revision 2

Split infinitive:

  • The doctor was careful to regularly check on her patients’ progress.

Split infinitive revised:

  • The doctor was carefrul regularly to check on her patients’ progress.
  • The doctor was carefrul to check on her patients’ progress regularly.

What Is the Problem Then?

Ambiguous Sentences

Sometimes you may end up with an awkward construction or unclear sentence. You may be forced to rewrite the whole sentence just to avoid breaking the rule or accept that your “correct” sentence is a bad one.

Revision 3

The idea is that we needed to leave calmly—rather than in a panic.

Split infinitive:

  • The security guard asked us to calmly leave the room.

Split infinitive revised:

  1. The security guard asked us calmly to leave the room.
  2. The security guard asked us to leave the room calmly.

Revised Sentence 1 above is ambiguous. It can easily be interpreted as the security guard having done something calmly, but that is not the intended meaning.

Revised Sentence 2 can also be interpreted as both we were to leave calmly or the security guard asked us calmly.

Solution: Ignore the rule and stick with the original sentence despite its split infinitive.

Revision 4

The idea is that students should review their lecture notes continually—rather than sporadically.

Split infinitive:

  • The instructor advised students to continually review their lecture notes.

Split infinitive revised:

  1. The instructor advised students continually to review their lecture notes.
  2. The instructor advised students to review their notes continually.

As with the sentences in Revision 3, both revised sentences can be interpreted incorrectly to mean that the instructor did something continually.

Solution: You are better off ignoring the rule and sticking with the original sentence despite the split infinitive.

Unnatural Sounding Expressions

In some cases, expressions having split infinitive are so common that “fixing” the split infinitive makes them sound unnatural or awkward. For example, you are better off leaving the following expressions alone:

  • to abruptly leave
  • to always/constantly avoid
  • to better/fully understand
  • to deeply appreciate
  • to finally arrive
  • to secretly plan
  • to suddenly notice
  • to warmly welcome
  • to wholeheartedly hope

Final Solution: Treat It As a Myth

Simply ignore the “no split infinitive” rule. The structure of the language allows you to split infinitives while creating unambiguous, meaningful sentences.

The main problem with the rule is that there is actually no problem. “Split infinitives do not sound good” or “they are awkward” are not valid justification to not split infinitives, which “do not sound right” only to people who dilligently follow this rule.

Although language changes over time, overzealous grammarians resist change. They perceive updating grammar rules as corrupting the language. That is probably why the “no split infinitives” rule persists even though English speakers have been splitting infinitives for centuries.

Important Caveats

If you are a student or work someplace where you must not split infinitives, don’t. You are likely not in a position to change your professor’s mind or revise your company’s style guide. It’s not worth the fight.

It is also important to follow certain “rules” because they make sense and result in better written work. For example, there are good reasons to avoid the third person in formal writing.

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