Deconstructing Advice: Split Infinitives

I have something quite important to say, so pay attention. (And read all the way to the end before you comment please.*)

To never split infinitives is a stupid rule.

The idea behind the insistence of unsplit infinitives is that in many languages that aren’t English (most of them, I’m sure), it’s not possible to split infinitives. This rule seems to want to ignore the fact that sentence structure can differ greatly from one language to another. Forgive my lack of knowledge of modern languages; I’m going to have to use Latin as an example. It’s what I studied in high school.

In Latin, verbs always come at the end of the sentence (and also can’t split their infinitives). But in English we don’t say

The dog the ball chased,

We say

The dog chased the ball.

English allows split infinitives, and it SHOULD. It’s not my fault we have all these extra 1-3 letter words that other languages don’t necessarily have.  But damnit, I’m going to use them.

After all, should I have to clumsily say

“The boy began to strum gently the guitar strings” or “The boy began gently to strum the guitar strings”?

1. “Gently the guitar strings” sounds awful, and 2. Was he beginning gently, or strumming gently?

It seems to me that split infinitives came about so that it would be quite clear with what verb the adverb belongs, or just to give the sentence a better flow, or both, and why not? The fact that there’s an infinitive in the sentence does not become lost if it is split. That would be the ONLY reason not to split it. If the sentence flow and rhythm is better served with the split, then really, who cares if you can’t write the sentence the exact same way in Latin?

*I invite anyone who’s very strongly against split infinitives to tell me WHY in the comments. Please give a legitimate, rational reason for the unsplit infinitive. “Because that’s how it is/should be/has been” is NOT a legitimate reason (or “because that’s the rule”). I’ve seen split infinitives so many times that I’m surprised anyone ever cares anymore, so if you’re going to insist, you can at least have a real argument to back up your opinion.

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5 thoughts on “Deconstructing Advice: Split Infinitives

  1. I have no way to helpfully comment, or to comment helpfully, since I wouldn’t know a split infinitive if I tripped over it! However, on principle, I am absolutely in support of intentional rule-breaking. Grammar police, be gone!

  2. Hi Deva, I have no argument really as the rule to aviod split infinitives was popularized in the 19th century and has gone out of style. However, if one were to choose not to split the infinitive in your sentence, and still have it read comfortably, it seems to me it would be ok to move the adverb after the guitar strings saying, “The boy began to stum the guitar strings gently” which leaves the infinitive in tact, while still making sence to 21st century ears.

      • Agreed. The other alternative is to use the present participle avoiding the infinitive saying, “The boy began gently strumming the guitar strings.” Again. I don’t have a problem with my own students using split infinitives, but if you run into a teacher who is adamant that you don’t use them, then there are other options that won’t be as offensive to one’s ears.

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