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Common Usage Dilemmas

Split Infinitives: To Boldly Go Where Everyone Else Goes

As their motto proves, the crew of the USS Enterprise split their infinitives along with their atoms. The motto should read: “To Go Boldly …” They're not alone. Remember that a split infinitive occurs when an adverb or adverbial phrase is placed between to and the verb.

People who feel strongly about their split infinitives really feel strongly about their split infinitives. A famous New Yorker cartoon shows Captain Bligh sailing away from the Bounty in a rowboat and shouting, “So Mr. Christian! You propose to unceremoniously cast me adrift?” The caption beneath the cartoon reads: “The crew can no longer tolerate Captain Bligh's ruthless splitting of infinitives.”

You Could Look It Up

A split infinitive occurs when an adverb or adverbial phrase is placed between to and the verb.

Even though some people get their pencils bent out of shape over this matter, there is no authoritative grammar and usage text that expressly forbids it. Famous writers have been splitting their infinitives with abandon for centuries. George Bernard Shaw, the brilliant Irish playwright, once sent this letter to 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.”

Quoth the Maven

The twentieth-century writer and cartoonist James Thurber had this to say to the editor who rearranged his infinitive: “When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split!”

What should you do? While I do not advocate that you go around town splitting infinitives with abandon, there's no point in mangling a sentence just to avoid a split infinitive. Good writers occasionally split infinitives to create emphasis, achieve a natural word order, and avoid confusion. If splitting an infinitive makes it possible for you to achieve the precise shade of meaning you desire, you have my blessing to split away.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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