What is a Split Infinitive?

By Maeve Maddox

This is the passage that contains what may be the most famous split infinitive of all time:

Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

to boldly go – The infinitive is to go. The adverb boldly splits it by coming between the “to” and the “go.”

So what’s wrong with that?
Nothing.

Although generations of grammarians have done their best to forbid the splitting of the English infinitive, their efforts have failed to stamp out the practice.

Why?
Because it can be split.

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb.

In many, if not most, languages, the infinitive is one word.

In English, however, the infinitive is made up of two words.

Here, for example, are some French, Spanish, and Latin infinitives and their English equivalents:

French: aller (to go) courir (to run) écrire (to write)
Spanish: beber (to drink) escuchar (to listen) hablar (to speak)
Latin: capere (to take) cupere (to desire) optare (to choose)

French, Spanish, and Latin infinitives cannot be split because they are expressed by one word.

There’s no point in forbidding English speakers to place a modifier between the “to” and the verb that follows it. They can do it, so they will.

Sometimes splitting the infinitive is the only way to express the thought to be conveyed.

Consider the following sentences.

I want to live simply.
I simply want to live.
I want to simply live.

Each of these three sentences conveys a different meaning.

I want to live simply. The thought is that the speaker wants to live without the trappings of affluence. The speaker prefers a simple life, perhaps like what Thoreau describes in Walden.

I simply want to live. Here the thought seems to be that the speaker wants to live as opposed to dying. Do whatever you have to do, Doctor. I simply want to live.

I want to simply live. The speaker is tired of going to work, worrying about responsibility. I’ve been a drudge too long. I want to simply live and not worry about tomorrow.

TIP:
If the split infinitive coveys your intended thought and sounds idiomatic, leave it.
If the split infinitive sounds awkward or muddies your thought, rewrite the sentence.

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17 Responses to “What is a Split Infinitive?”

  • Euthyphro

    You gave three examples to show that splitting infinitives is “the only way to express the thought to be conveyed.”

    I want to live simply.
    I simply want to live.
    I want to simply live.

    The example that is split could be express without the split by changing places with simply and to, thus:

    I want to live simply.
    I simply want to live.
    I want simply to live.

    Is there some difference in meaning that I am missing?

  • Paul Russell

    I’m sorry, but I can’t agree that spitting infinitives is correct, however common it may be.

    Nor can I agree that is justified in order to convey meaning.

    In your example “I want to simply live” I think the correct sentence is “I want simply to live.”

    –paul

  • Clare Lynch

    Sorry, Paul, I disagree with you. The rule about not splitting infinitives was artificially imposed on us by 18th century grammarians who believed Latin was superior to English. What’s to stop me deciding German is superior to English and therefore deciding all my verbs to the end of the sentence to send? See what I mean?

    For more on my argument for splitting with abandon, you can take a look at my post on this topic from a couple of years ago:
    http://www.daccreative.co.uk/goodcopybadcopy/?p=5

  • Paul Russell

    That’s okay Clare. I didn’t expect many, or any, people to agree with me. However; I am one of those chalk-on-blackboard people who cringe every time they hear “to boldly go.” I can’t help wondering what “to boldly” means.

    I can’t see the logic in blaming it on Latin. It seems to me, if the verb is “to go” you shouldn’t chop it up. I like to think of it as “togo” or “to-go” with the words remaining inseparable.

    Come to think of it though, if we want to change the rules, why not drop the “to”? Other languages don’t need it, so why English?

    “Boldly go when no man has gone before.”

    –paul

  • Blain Reinkensmeyer

    I think it is fantastic, makes perfect sense to me and this sentence should put any naysayer to rest,

    “There’s no point in forbidding English speakers to place a modifier between the “to” and the verb that follows it. They can do it, so they will.”

    🙂

  • Brad K.

    I like the version from Leah Rewolinski’s Star Wreck books. “.. go where no one wanted to go before.”

  • Bill Petro

    “To boldly split infinitives, where no man has split infinitives before!”

  • Tom Dulaney

    If splitting infinitives doesn’t sound awkward and delivers the thought, I urge all to boldly split where grammarians have not gone before.

  • Nathan G Zhang

    I thought that Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools, declared adverbs as being dangerous. Boldly is an adverb and it does not really modify go in another direction, it just makes it sound braver.

    In the book he gives an example: sweetly faked attention. Faked goes in one direction, sweetly modifies it in another.

    So in my view boldly go goes in the same direction as go, so boldly is unnecessary. Of course, being a Trekkie, I have no intention of changing Trekkie history or culture by annihilating boldly…

  • Peter

    Good; the two fake grammar rules that annoy me most are this split infinitive nonsense and the one about ending a sentence with a preposition.

    Come to think of it though, if we want to change the rules, why not drop the “to”? Other languages don’t need it, so why English?

    “Boldly go when no man has gone before.”
    Because that changes the meaning to an imperative 🙂

  • Tom S. Fox

    “What’s to stop me deciding German is superior to English and therefore deciding all my verbs to the end of the sentence to send?”

    Well, for one the fact that German doesn’t do that.

  • stevemarvin

    I want, simply, to live.

  • Passerby

    While you don’t agree with Paul and Steve, the fact remains that they are right. You’ve asserted that there is no other other way to express “I want to simply live”, without splitting the infinitive. That is inaccurate. I’m a long time out of college, certainly no dedicated grammarian, and still I noticed the factual error. The spirit of the post–that rules that don’t affect meaning are pointless rules–is sensible. Supporting the premise with faulty examples, and thus undermining your credibility, isn’t.

  • Editor_007

    Euthyphro, Paul Russell, and stevemarvin are correct.

  • Ruchita

    “I want simply to live.”

    “I want to simply live.”

    What I find particularly gripping in the latter sentence is the rhythm. I’m all for following rules and maintaining split infinitives. I would add that like all rules this one should not be broken lightly. Only do it when you have something profound to say. Like “to boldly go”. That has the rhythm, the grandeur if I may say so, that justifies the rule breaking. I’d do it if it added poignancy to writing like the example above.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post and also to commentators for the discussion.

  • James A. Ritchie

    What seems left out of this argument is quality. I seldom see really good writing from those who stick doggedly to any rule. To those who say it’s best to leave “boldly” out altogether, or that it sounds better without pushing its way into the middle of the infinitive, I say your ear is made of tin, and your writing is made of boredom.

  • Paula Farina

    What bugs people the most, I think, is that language evolves. Just because something was proper in 1850 or even 1950 doesn’t mean it will matter today. Language is living, growing, changing all the time. My mother was punished in the 1930s for saying someone was “lousy”; today, it means nothing. In the 1960s, to say one was “p.o.’d” was really rebellious — today, they say the whole phrase (no initials!) right on network TV. The best example is, I think, that the word “ain’t” was a perfectly good contraction in the 1700s — it meant “am not.” “I ain’t going” was perfectly acceptable, as was “ain’t I?” Today we say “Aren’t I?” which is awful! It means “Are I not?” But …. language does indeed have a life of its own. (Although I admit: I still hate to end a sentence with a preposition!)

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