Split Infinitives; Or, Star Trek, You Have a Lot to Answer For

The infinitive of a verb is the form with ‘to’ in front of it. As in, to be or not to be.

A split infinitive is a verb in this form, but with something stuck between to and the main bit: to not be, by way of example.

People (OK, grammar nerds) have been getting their knickers in a twist about split infinitives for ages.

Writing back in 1926, H.W. Fowler divided the world into (1) those who neither know nor care about split infinitives, (2) those who don’t really know what they are, but think they’re bad, (3) those who know and condemn them, and (4) those who know and distinguish.

Ever since ‘to boldly go’ flashed across people’s TVs screens in the 1960s, the world has largely fallen into category (1).

Herewith (not a word you should use in a client piece, by the bye), a plea to put yourself in category (4).

To give Gene Roddenberry his due, to boldly go where no man has ever gone before does have a good ring to it. To really understand is also fine, and sounds less stilted (at least today) than the classically correct really to understand. But to function fully is better than either to fully function or fully to function.

Routine splitting of infinitives can have a deadening effect. Compare:

I told you to not do it

I told you not to do it.

She resolved to never do it again

She resolved never to do it again.

In each case, the un-split infinitive is stronger; there is a kind of built-in pause for effect. Hamlet didn’t say to be or to not be, with good reason.

Think as well about what you actually intend to say (Fowler’s examples): our objective is to further cement and our objective is further to cement have slightly different meanings (the first, more cementing; the second, more objectives). A subtle distinction, but we’re lawyers – people pay us to make these.

Next time: so what should I write about?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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