The Writer’s Toolbox – To Infinitive…and Beyond!

Grammar may feel like It’s all about rules?but the rules are always changing, and what was considered horrendous usage a century ago may be perfectly acceptable (or even preferable) today. One example is the former taboo on ending sentences with prepositions another is the much-maligned but now perfectly respectable split infinitive.

To Infinity
The infinitive is the basic form of a verb, usually expressed as to plus the verb itself, as in to go or to have or to finish. What makes it the infinitive form is that the verb hasn’t been changed to match who or whatever is performing the action.

To isn’t always part of the infinitive form, depending on the verb and the way It’s being used, but It’s the to form of an infinitive that gives rise to the issue of split infinitives. Simply put, a split infinitive means that a word or phrase is placed between to and the verb.

Example A: Sarah decided to bravely approach the professor. This is an example of a split infinitive; the adverb bravely separates the infinitive form to approach.

Doing the Splits
English is unusual in that its infinitive form can be two words, unlike, say, French, where the verb to go is simply aller and to read is lire. It’s believed that the inability to split infinitives in languages like Latin influenced, in a roundabout, cranky-grammarian way, the archaic rule barring split infinitives in English.

Prior to the 1920s, Example A would have been considered incorrect, and You’re sure to still find holdouts insisting that one may never, never split an infinitive. But that hasn’t been a rule for almost a century. Today, you most certainly may split an infinitive; in fact, sometimes you may need to.

And Beyond
One of the biggest issues with trying to avoid split infinitives is lack of clarity?or even the possibility of changing a sentence’s meaning.

Example B: Sarah bravely decided to approach the professor. Does this mean the same as Example A? Not quite; in Example A, Sarah’s decision was to bravely approach the professor, but that doesn’t mean her decision-making was done bravely. Example A only describes the planned approach to the professor; it does not describe the decision. She could have been faking it. She could have been forced into it. Little things matter, and trying to avoid split infinitives can mask subtleties in language.

Example C: Sarah decided to approach the professor bravely. This avoids the above problem?it retains the meaning of Example A?but pushing intervening adverbs to the end of the sentence can cause other problems when sentences become more complex:

Example D: Sarah decided to approach the professor who flunked her bravely. Now It’s unclear whether bravely describes Sarah’s approach or the professor’s flunking her. In fact, this error is known as a misplaced modifier, and It’s a much bigger issue than a split infinitive.

The solution? Splitting infinitives isn’t a bad thing; nor is keeping both parts of an infinitive together. Make decisions based on the needs of the sentence and the meaning You’re trying to convey, rather than on an obsolete rule.

And when in doubt, ask which method would express your thoughts most effectively. It’s been trotted out as an example so many times It’s almost lost its effect, but one more can’t hurt: would the iconic line “To boldly go where no man has gone before” really have been as memorable if the infinitive had stayed together?

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.