The Debunker: Is It Wrong To Ever Split An Infinitive?

by Ken Jennings

If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #4: It’s Bad Grammar to Ever Split an Infinitive.

An infinitive is a verb that hasn’t been conjugated to indicate who’s doing it or when. To go, for example, is an English infinitive. But if you were to put a third word between to and go—like Captain Kirk does when he promises “to boldly go where no man has gone before”—you have split the infinitive, a construction at which many self-appointed grammarians like to tsk-tsk.

Historically, the split infinitive has moved in and out of English usage over time. It was acceptable in Middle English, as we know from its frequent use in the writing of the 14th-century religious reformer John Wycliffe, but the Elizabethans hardly ever used it. It came back into style in the hands of more recent authors from Twain to Kipling to Browning to Thomas Hardy—skilled prose stylists all. In response, despite the fact that the split infinitive had already been used for centuries, some 19th-century purists took up arms against it. In a series of U.S.-Britain negotiations in the 1870s over the Confederate warship Alabama, London instructed its diplomats that they could make many important concessions to the Americans, but under no circumstances were they to split an infinitive in the treaty. Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler got so annoyed with proofreaders “fixing” his split infinitives that in 1947 he fired off a note to his editor: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split.”

Despite what schoolteachers may have told you, no modern commentators enforce a clear-cut rule against splitting infinitives. Instead, the rule of thumb is usually “do it whenever it sounds better.” Many grammarians note that the general rule in English is to place a modifier immediately before the word it modifies, so a sentence will often become less clear when an infinitive is un-split. At the very least, its emphasis and rhythm will change. What if Captain Kirk had promised “boldly to go” or “to go boldly” where no man had gone before? It just isn’t the same.

Quick Quiz: What Pygmalion playwright once wrote the Times of London, “There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives: I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.