Is It OK to Split an Infinitive?

An infinitive (e.g., to run, to dance, to swim) is split when a word, usually an adverb, is inserted between to and the verb (to never run). It is grammatically fine to split the 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.

  • 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.

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 first sentence of this paragraph?

  • 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 + verb), which can easily and meaningfully be separated from each other. In fact, sometimes, not splitting the infinitive can lead to ambiguity or loss of intended emphasis.

Emphasis and meaning

You may need to split the infinitive to emphasize an adverb.

  • People tend to immediately get upset if you step on their toes.
  • She hopes to always find help when she needs it.
  • I want to never see you again.

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 wants to emphasize the boldness of these expeditions. Interestingly, emphasizing the adverb can be important not just in space travel but also on Earth.

  • 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.

  • Make sure to always turn off the engine before you exit the spacecraft.
  • Be careful not to inadvertently press the red 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?

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

  • 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

Adverbs that often split the infinitive

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

  • 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.

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

  • 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?

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

  • Split infinitive: Farley is running away to Nusquam to not get arrested.
  • Alternative: Farley is running away to Nusquam 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 Nusquam not to get arrested but to find a cure for his athlete’s foot. In such sentences, splitting the infinitive makes the meaning clear and also lays emphasis on the word not.

For the sake of 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.

  • I wanted to only surprise you, not scare you.
  • Try to just poke it 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.

  • 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)

The split infinitive in literature

Needlessly rewording sentences to avoid a split infinitive can hurt the flow of your text. Here are some examples of the split infinitive appearing naturally in good writing.

  • Being a stranger, it would be immodest for me to suddenly and violently assume the editorship of the Buffalo Express . . .
    Mark Twain, “Salutatory,” The Buffalo Express (August 18, 1869)
  • In law it is good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not.
    Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (published 1953)
  • It seemed that he had caught the fish himself . . . 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)
  • The more I have studied, the greater seems the necessity to utterly stamp him out.
    Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
  • 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’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)
  • It is so much safer to not feel, not to let the world touch one.
    Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (published 2000)
  • We decided to never love again.
    Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (published 1999)
  • 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)
  • 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)

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

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a split infinitive?
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Which is/are grammatical?
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Which is clearer?
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Is it grammatically wrong to split an infinitive?
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