To unashamedly split infinitives

Warning: You probably need to be a language enthusiast to enjoy this article. But I’m hoping you are one!


I expect you’ve heard of Fowler. I mean H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the standard reference book for grammar questions, first published in 1926. Besides being authoritative, it was quite entertainingly written. The edition I own is the 1996 one, edited by R W Burchfield.

And here is an entertaining entry I happen to passionately agree with:

superstitions. Among the most enduring of the superstitions or myths about our language are these: sentences should not begin with and or but; sentences should not end with a preposition; and infinitives should not be ‘split’. For further examples of such beliefs, see FETISHES.

A certain kind of person makes a virtue out of picking up such “errors”. If they hear one on the radio, or read it in a piece of serious writing, they will protest–maybe even to the extent of writing to Feedback or the publisher. They will take a delight in “correcting” the “offender”. (Ironically, publishers will avoid using such a person as a proofreader or editor: an important skill is the ability to know when not to change things. Even more ironically, the person will usually object to the use of hopefully in the way in which I’ve just used ironically, as a “sentence adverb”.)

They wouldn’t like the sentence I used just now to introduce the quotation. It started with and, split the infinitive to agree, and ended with the preposition with, thereby breaking all three “rules”.

But to be honest, I don’t like happen passionately to agree. It feels clumsy; I can’t “happen passionately”; it feels awkward breaking up happen to by sticking passionately in the middle of it; splitting passionately agree by inserting to feels uncomfortable too. The rules they want me to use when writing aren’t the ones my brain uses when reading. Here, then, is an entertaining entry with which I happen passionately to agree . . . That’s simply too formal and pedantic in style for a piece of writing like this. It’s also longer, because of having to include which.

Take another example. Some people insist that none is always singular, so that you must never say none of them are, only none of them is. (This is the same, I think, as assuming that none can only mean not one, never not any.) Fowler says this:

none. It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs or pronouns. It should be borne in mind that none is not a shortening of no one but is the regular descendent of OE [1] nan ‘none, not one’. At all times since the reign of King Alfred the choice of plural or singular in the accompanying verbs, etc. has been governed by the surrounding words or by the nominal sense.

I’ll go with King Alfred, then.

Good grammar or rigid grammar?

What is “correct” grammar for?

Let’s ask the more basic question: what is language for? It’s for communication. English is good when it clearly communicates what it means to, and bad when it doesn’t. Communication is helped if words mean the same thing to the speaker as to the listener, or to the writer as the reader; similarly it’s helpful to have grammatical constructions which unambiguously mean the same to both parties. Good grammar is grammar which achieves that.

Most linguisticians [2] these days see grammatical rules not as prescriptions for correctness, imposed by some authority, but as descriptions of how the language normally works. They exist because conventions have evolved about what the different constructions mean. These have become more or less “standardised”. Why are they there? To enable clear communication. How did they arise? They evolved that way, through usage. They didn’t arise from someone deciding what was or was not “correct”, but from experience of what worked and what didn’t. Language is a continuous experiment.

Rules for their own sake are also, it seems to me, rather a blunt instrument. A nice feature of English is its ability to express many fine shades of meaning. I think this comes partly from its huge vocabulary, and partly from its flexible word order. That’s one of the things I most love about it.

So I get upset when people mechanically impose rules like these; they actually lose the fine distinctions. To my ears the supposedly incorrect phrase often has a slightly different meaning from the “correct” one. The actual “correct version” is the one which most accurately represents the intended meaning.

A small audience

Here’s an example. I was startled by an acquaintance’s responce to my question: “Has it ever occurred to you that It was a small audience and They were a small audience mean completely different things?” “No,” she said, “Audience is singular, so it can only be It was. They were is wrong. I was married to an English teacher for twenty-five years, so I know these things.”

My protestations that Fowler didn’t agree got me nowhere. And she didn’t see the mental image that amused me, either . . .

Can you see it? Let me add a few words:

  1. It was a very small audience: there were only five people in it.
  2. They were a very small audience: not one of them was over a foot tall.

Clearly [3] a small audience of a few humans is more likely than a small audience of hundreds of tiny humanoids, but it was small and they were small mean quite distinct things.

You might still be feeling uncomfortable about this. Actually there is a slight problem with the second sentence, but not the one she was complaining about. In one case it’s the audience which is small, and in the other it’s they who are small, but I use small audience both times. And so the two situations are actually

  1. The audience was very small.
  2. The audience were very small.

Shades of meaning

Here is a more fun example, involving a split infinitive. I’m not sure why this is the sentence which came to mind when I first thought about this, but it was! Consider the rebuke:

  • You don’t need to suddenly start jumping out at people.

Our friendly pedant would say that to suddenly start is wrong, and that it should be suddenly to start. But I think this either changes the meaning or makes it ambiguous, as you’ll see in a moment.

Let’s be thorough about this. Let’s try putting suddenly in all places where the sentence will let it go. Just for the hell of it. Let’s see what happens.

  1. Suddenly you don’t need to start jumping out at people.
  2. You suddenly don’t need to start jumping out at people.
  3. You don’t suddenly need to start jumping out at people.
  4. You don’t need suddenly to start jumping out at people.
  5. You don’t need to suddenly start jumping out at people.
  6. You don’t need to start suddenly jumping out at people.
  7. You don’t need to start jumping out suddenly at people.
  8. You don’t need to start jumping out at people suddenly.

I’ve not included jumping suddenly out because it seems to me to stretch things further than they will really go, and I’ve not included at suddenly people because it’s too ungrammatical to make any sense.

Each placing gives a different meaning, a different range of meanings, or a slightly different emphasis. Some of the differences quite subtle and hard to describe, but I’ll have a go.

  1. Suddenly you don’t need to start jumping out at people.
  2. You suddenly don’t need to start jumping out at people.

These both mean almost the same thing, but with different emphasis. In (1) the situation suddenly changes into one in which starting to jump out at people is no longer required. In (2), you suddenly change, into a person who no longer feels the need to start jumping out at people.

  1. You don’t suddenly need to start jumping out at people.
  2. You don’t need suddenly to start jumping out at people.
  3. You don’t need to suddenly start jumping out at people.

The first and last of these are unambiguous. In (3), the sentence is disagreeing with your claim that although you once didn’t need to start jumping out at people, now you suddenly do. It refers to a sudden change in need. In (5), the infinitive-splitting version, you weren’t jumping out at people in the past, but have suddenly begun to do so. The reference this time is to a sudden change of behaviour.

(4) though, need suddenly to start, is ambiguous, even though it is the supposedly correct version, which our friendly pedant would want. We can read it as “need suddenly” or “suddenly start”. I myself find it easier to read as “need suddenly”, so the meaning of the “corrected” version is different from that of the original.

  1. You don’t need to start suddenly jumping out at people.
  2. You don’t need to start jumping out suddenly at people.
  3. You don’t need to start jumping out at people suddenly.

At first sight, these all mean the same thing: you weren’t jumping out at people; you are just starting, or about to start, to behave that way; you don’t need to make that change.

But if I weigh them carefully, each seems to me to have a different emphasis. As I hear it, (6) seems either to treat suddenly jumping out as a single unit, complaining about the action as a whole, or to emphasise jumping out more than suddenly. In (7), on the other hand, jumping out suddenly seems to emphasise suddenly as well, and there are now two complaints: “You don’t need to start jumping out at people, and what’s even worse, doing it suddenly so they all have heart attacks”.

(8), jumping out at people suddenly, emphasises suddenly even more, and the sentence is now definitely ambiguous. It can either be the same kind of meaning I’ve just described for jumping out suddenly at people, or a new one which is approximately “I know you like jumping out at people, and we’re all used to it, but there’s no need to start being sudden about it”. Presumably you previously issued some kind of warning first, or did it in a very predictable way.

In each case, we’re talking about sudden jumping. The most natural place for suddenly is immediately before jumping. Putting it after instead of before emphasises it; putting it even later emphasises it even more.

What split infinitives are for

Back to our split infinitive: to suddenly start. What does it do? It acts as a sort of “container”. Anything which is between to and start can only refer to start. It’s a remarkably strong container: however far away we move the to, the result is unambiguous. In fact it’s even possible to carefully, so as to visibly make my point, place one split infinitive inside another. The preceding sentence did just that.

On the other hand, look what happened when we moved suddenly . . . start apart:

  • don’t need to suddenly start: unambiguous
  • don’t need suddenly to start: awkward and now ambiguous
  • don’t suddenly need to start: unambiguous but a different meaning
  • suddenly don’t need to start: yet another different meaning.

The adverb suddenly seems to attach itself to any likely-looking verb in the vicinity, producing lots of different meanings. The split infinitive keeps it under control, unambiguously attached to start.

Interestingly the author of a book I have on computer programming seems to have adopted a policy of always splitting infinitives. Once I noticed, I couldn’t find a single instance where he’d avoided it. I suspect this was because he wanted to avoid any hint of ambiguity at all, since programming needs complete precision.

So I’m unhappy about the split infinitive “rule”. I think Fowler was right to describe it as a “superstition”. I think a much more valid rule would be: don’t separate an adverb (e.g. suddenly) from its verb (e.g. start) any further than is absolutely necessary.

Why does the “rule” persist? I suspect it might be because

  • once you’ve learnt it, it’s an easy rule to remember
  • in any instance, it’s totally clear whether the rule has been applied or not
  • people learnt it at school when they were young, and simply accepted what they were taught
  • finding mistakes in written English is fun.

In my opinion the split infinitive “rule” is cultural, not linguistic, and it’s one we could well do without. I wish English teachers would refrain from teaching it to their pupils. It’s more important that they can recognise and avoid ambiguity, and the “rule” is a hindrance to that. Ambiguity and clarity is actually more interesting as well, since there’s lots of scope for fun examples of sentences which have gone wrong. The kinds of sentence, in fact, which gets sent in to The News Quiz or Have I Got News For You.


[1] Old English. Back
[2] People who study linguistics—as distinct from linguists, who learn languages. Someone who speaks eight languages fluently is a linguist; someone who is an expert on the way children learn to talk, or the way dialects evolve over time, is a linguistician. Back
[3] Another “sentence adverb”, as Fowler calls them.Back

4 responses to “To unashamedly split infinitives

  1. Cool post. My favourite, and arguably the most famous split infinitive of all time, comes to us from the original Star Trek: “To boldly go…”

  2. fascinating. now of course i’d be interested in the history of the rule against split infinitives. maybe alexander mccall smith should write a novel about it 🙂

  3. in this case, wikipedia DOES have an interesting entry. also see the article’s talk page.

    • Thanks for the link—if that article’s right it seems that the “rule” didn’t really arise until the late 19th century, though it’s puzzling that split infinitives went out of use for a while before reappearing.

      For myself, I don’t think the term split infinitive is even meaningful: I see the to as a separate marker used with the infinitive, not as part of it, and all we do when we change to go to to boldly go is replace the verb go with the verb phrase boldly go.

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