Split Infinitives: Is It OK to Split an Infinitive?

Summary

An infinitive is split when a word (usually an adverb) is inserted between to and the verb (to never know). It is grammatically fine to split an infinitive in English. In fact, doing so is often the more natural choice. A split infinitive can improve clarity or help emphasize the right word in a sentence.

What is a split infinitive?

An infinitive (to go, to win, to sing) is split when a word or a phrase (usually an adverb) appears between to and the verb.

Examples
  • Farley wants to never worry about the future again.
  • I would like to better understand your needs.
  • We ask everyone to kindly turn off their mobile phones.
  • It’s OK to sometimes break rules, especially if they don’t make sense.

Is it wrong to split an infinitive?

It is fine to split an infinitive in English. The injunction to not split infinitives, which dates back to Victorian times, is based neither on English grammar nor on actual usage. Most people regularly break this “rule” without even realizing it. For instance, did you notice that an infinitive was split in the second sentence of this paragraph?

Example
  • The injunction to not split infinitives is unreasonable.

Purists may have stylistic objections. Perhaps because Latin does not allow the infinitive to be split, they consider a split infinitive inelegant. However, in Latin, the infinitive is one word, whereas in English, the infinitive comprises two words, a particle plus a verb (to + split), which can easily and meaningfully be split. In fact, sometimes, not splitting the infinitive can lead to ambiguity or loss of intended emphasis.

Emphasis on adverb

Splitting an infinitive helps emphasize the adverb.

Examples
  • People tend to immediately get upset if you step on their toes.
  • Tumkin hopes to always find gold when he needs it.

Consider the famous introductory speech from the TV show Star Trek:

Its continuing mission . . . to boldly go where no one has gone before.

We could rephrase (“to go boldly where no one has gone before”), but boldly would then lose its emphasis. The narrator does not want to speak merely of going to new worlds but about the boldness of these expeditions. Interestingly, emphasizing the adverb can be important not just in space travel but also on Earth.

Example
  • Scary: I am going to utterly crush you.
    Less scary: I am going to crush you utterly.

Here are some more examples of when you might want to split an infinitive to lay stress on the adverb.

Examples
  • Make sure to always turn off the engine before you exit the spacecraft.
  • Be careful not to inadvertently press the Launch button.
  • Poco needs to not yell at his crew anymore.
  • Do you intend to at least try, or are you going to just give up?

Also consider this example in which an editor splits the infinitive, and her sentence sounds perfectly natural and meaningful.

Example
  • Editors are scribes liberated to not simply record and disseminate information, but think hard about it, interpret, and ultimately, influence it.
    — Susan Bell (former editor at Random House and Conjunctions magazine), The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, 2007

Meaning and clarity

Apart from shifting emphasis, adverb placement can directly affect meaning.

Examples
  • I really want to clean this place up.
    conveys determination to clean the place
    I want to really clean this place up.
    emphasizes how very clean the place will be
  • Anita secretly likes to watch reality shows.
    It is a secret that she likes to watch these shows.
    Anita likes to secretly watch reality shows.
    She likes watching them when nobody else knows she’s doing it.
Caution

Make sure to place the adverb correctly in a sentence. The split infinitive is sometimes the better choice.

Example
  • Poor: Anita quickly wants to finish her work and go home.
    It’s not the wanting that’s quick.
    Better: Anita wants to quickly finish her work and go home.

When to split an infinitive: Usage notes

Adverbs like never, not, always, truly, and soon often split the infinitive. These adverbs generally appear right before the verbs they modify, both for clarity and emphasis.

Examples
  • Nesbit drank an elixir to never get old.
  • I promise to always love you.
  • Farley hopes to soon find a job.
  • Poco wants to eventually start his own company.
  • Maya expects to finally start traveling in February.

Intensifier in split infinitives

You will often find intensifiers like really and truly splitting infinitives.

Examples
  • Farley hopes to really make a difference this time.
  • Poco wants to totally revamp the product line.
  • Do you want to truly and completely immerse yourself in the yogic way of life?

Not in split infinitives

When the word not is used, splitting the infinitive can be necessary both to meaning and emphasis.

Example
  • Split infinitive: Farley is running away to Mexico to not get arrested.
  • Alternative: Farley is running away to Mexico not to get arrested.

The reader expects the “not to” in the alternative to be followed by a “but to”—perhaps Farley is running away to Mexico not to get arrested but to find a cure for his athlete’s foot.

Here is another such sentence:

Example
  • Split infinitive: Maya goes to therapy to not be overcome by depression.
  • Alternative: Maya goes to therapy not to be overcome by depression.
    The split infinitive is preferable as it makes the meaning clearer and also lays emphasis on not.

Only and just in split infinitives

For clarity, adverbs like only and just are generally placed right beside the verbs they modify. Thus, you might need to place them within an infinitive to ensure that not just the emphasis in a sentence but also its meaning is correct.

Examples
  • I wanted to only surprise you, not scare you.
  • Try to just poke it a bit and see what happens.
  • I wanted to simply die when they called my name right there in front of everyone.

When to not split the infinitive

In general, not splitting the infinitive is more common than splitting it. Not every adverb needs to be emphasized, and adverb placement does not always cause ambiguity. In other words, you don’t have to split the infinitive.

Examples
  • Farley had no choice but to wait hopelessly in the dark.
  • Maya used to dance madly in the rain.
  • “He was compelled to shiver endlessly in the outskirts, getting only feeble warmth . . .”
    Isaac Asimov, Adding a Dimension: Seventeen Essays on the History of Science, 1966

Examples from literature

Unnecessarily rewording sentences to avoid the split infinitive can hurt the flow of your writing. Here are some examples from literature, where well-respected writers have split the infinitive when doing so is the more natural choice.

Examples
  • Being a stranger, it would be immodest for me to suddenly and violently assume the editorship of the Buffalo Express without a single word of comfort or encouragement to the unoffending patrons of the paper, who are about to be exposed to constant attacks of my wisdom and learning.
    Mark Twain, “Salutatory,” The Buffalo Express, August 18, 1869
  • It seemed that he had caught the fish himself, years ago, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school.
    Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 1889
  • I have studied, over and over again since they came into my hands, all the papers relating to this monster, and the more I have studied, the greater seems the necessity to utterly stamp him out.
    Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
  • I’d like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
  • I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive.
    Ernest Hemingway in a letter to his father (1925), quoted in Hemingway’s In Our Time: Lyrical Dimensions, 1992
  • I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
    Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon, 1966
  • We decided to never love again . . .
    Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, published 1999

Write what sounds natural, and make sure your meaning is clear. As you can see from the examples above, many great writers have cheerfully split the infinitive and written the better for it.

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a split infinitive?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is/are grammatical?
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Which is clearer?
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All done!
Is it grammatically wrong to split an infinitive?
Choose from these answers
All done!

Did You Know?

Words like captain and major are not capitalized when used as common nouns.
Know more:Captain, Sergeant, General: Are Military Ranks Capitalized?