To helpfully clarify, to better communicate: a history of the split infinitive

As constantly happens in the history of language, the old order of things is changing. … The practice of inserting an adverb between the infinitive sign and the infinitive has steadily increased during the last hundred years, and goes on increasing still.

– Thomas Lounsbury, 1908

A tiny band of Japanese soldiers, stationed on an island in the Philippines, kept fighting for many years after World War II had ended because they refused to believe that their side could possibly have lost.

The war against the split infinitive is still being fought, even though the cause was lost long ago.

One of those who battles on, in denial of this ancient defeat, is Neville Gwynne. Last Monday he told Radio 4’s World at One:

The wrongness of the split infinitive is about as old as English itself. It dates back to about 1500 or something, and is based not on Latin but the fact that English is a German language, and you don’t split the infinitive in German beginning with “zu”…

The split infinitive was not even used in 1485, Shakespeare never used it. It was never used until the 19th century, when Fanny Burney wrote her whole lot of books where she always split her infinitives. Nobody sort of took her line on it, and it has been absolutely regarded as unacceptable ever since. And not because it’s an arbitrary rule … you split an infinitive, you’ve made a mistake. …

Grammar is a science which has been identified century after century by grammarian after grammarian, and they’re all agreed on what the science is and there’s always a good reason for any particular rule, and that is why that rule is stuck with.

Almost all of this is wrong.

I say “almost” because I don’t know about infinitives in German, so I can’t comment on that bit. But in any case, while English and German grammar have quite a bit in common, they’re not the same. So, whatever the Germans do with infinitives, it’s not going to tell us what to do in English. The two diverged long ago, of course, and I also don’t know about the Germanic languages that crossed the sea between the fifth and eleventh centuries. But likewise, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings didn’t know about modern English, so their evidence on this point is irrelevant.

Oh, and Gwynne is right that the Latin analogy is a red herring; I’ve not come across any anti-splitter who uses it as an argument.

(Pedantic aside: The likes of “to talk” are not technically infinitives. All that English has in the way of infinitives is the plain, uninflected form of the verb: just “talk”. These are sometimes used with “to”, as in “Do you expect me to talk?”, and sometimes not, as in “You’ll never make me talk!” So, technically, what gets split in “to loudly talk” is an infinitival clause. This fact might be taken to suggest that the campaign against split infinitives has been conceptually confused right from the start.)

What are the facts?

Split infinitives go back into Middle English:

Richard Rolle of Hampole, c.1343: “yeve me grace to have most deynte to inwardly loke and þynk upon þat blessed face”

John Wyclif, c.1380: “What movede the pape of Rome to thus accepte mennes persones”

But they were uncommon. While Wyclif used several in his works, Chaucer only ever used two. The 15th-century bishop Reginald Pecock was a profligate splitter, but he seems to have been alone in that. Shakespeare actually used one (“Thy pity may deserve to pitied be”), but arguably sonnets don’t count.

Split infinitives were rare through the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, although not because their wrongness had been established: there’s no record of any criticism or prohibition of them. They were just unconventional at the time. But they were used here and there, and their numbers grew in the late 18th century:

John Fortescue, 1471: “It is not good for a kyng to oversore charge his people”

Thomas More, 1533: “would ye not be as hasty to not belieue it?”

Thomas Stapleton, 1565: “To saye therefore that the whole worlde hathe ben blinded many a hundred yeare… is to flatly gainsaye the moste cleere… sayinges of the psalmes”

John Eaton, 1642: “to grosly make the Scripture like a nose of wax”

Robert Gentilis, 1650: “Anniball was advised… to not go to Rome”

Henry More, 1656: “Melancholy enclines a man very strongly and peremptorily to either believe or misbelieve a thing”

Daniel Defoe, 1725: “They had indeed some boats in the river, but they were very small, and rather served to just waft them over, or to fish in them, than for any other use”

Edmund Burke, 1756: “yet, I believe, a well-fashioned human leg will be allowed to far exceed all these in beauty”

John Wilkes, 1762: “Is this the cue given him in his instructions, to boldly assert, that Englishmen are all born to be slaves to a few persons”

Samuel Foote, 1764: “on closer inquiry he found the turn-up of her nose to exactly resemble the bust of the Princess Poppsea”

Charles Dibdin, 1777: “This treatment is enough to quite Bereave one of one’s wits”

Fanny Burney, 1778 “I know not how I should be able to absolutely forbid him my sight”

So Fanny Burney was certainly not the first splitter, although she was probably the first prominent and habitual splitter of the modern age. But, as Gwynne says, nobody took her line on it. Nobody except:

Samuel Johnson, 1781: “Milton was too busy to much miss his wife”

Frederic Pilon, 1786: “Now Mandeville, to completely remove your fears in regard to Harriet, know, I have made your peace with her uncle”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1802: “the interest which the good people of Keswick take in the welfare of the beauty of Buttermere, has not yet suffered them to entirely subside

Walter Scott, 1816: “Morton left his companion, with a caution to so shade his light that no reflection might be seen”

John Keats, 1818: “our duties there: to nightly call Vesper”

William Taylor, 1830: “hence it is not easy to sharply characterize this greek poet”

Lord Macaulay, 1843: “In order to fully appreciate the character of Lord Holland”

Herbert Spencer, 1852: “It may be easier to bear along all the qualifications of an idea and at once rightly form it when named, than to first imperfectly conceive such idea”

Anthony Trollope, 1855: “curtains draped so as to half exclude the light”

George Eliot, 1860: “I undertook to partially fill up the office of parish clerk”

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1865: “being told to just step on seven miles farther”

Samuel Wilberforce, 1874: “if we would retain that to which we had a right (the trading place upon the river bank), to continually spread the margin, and by degrees to alter the holding of that which we had reluctantly consented to receive”

Mark Twain 1883 “The commission’s scheme to arbitrarily and permanently confine the channel”

Jerome K Jerome, 1889: “One never has time to really think

Rudyard Kipling, 1890: “which prompts a man to savagely stamp on the spider he has but half killed”

Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892: “The observer who had thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones”

Thomas Hardy, 1895: “She wants to honestly and legally marry that man”

Enough examples. We can see the growth of split infinitives more clearly using the Google Books Ngram Viewer. The charts for common adverbs placed between “to” and common verbs such as “be”, “have”, “say”, “get”, “go” and “see” tell the same story. They became more frequent during the 19th century, especially the second half, then they paused or in some cases retreated a little in the early 20th – perhaps the result of the campaign against them – before surging from the 1960s onwards.

What was this campaign against them? And what was it based on?

The first recorded criticism of the split infinitive was in 1834, in an article in the New-England Magazine signed only “P”. P called it a “fault” that was “not unfrequent among uneducated persons”:

I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point; no treatise on grammar or rhetoric, within my knowledge, alludes to it. The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this:—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

He added that there were doubtless exceptions to this rule “in some of the most celebrated authors”, but that this was “chiefly because they were restrained by no written positive rule” – that is, people split their infinitives because nobody had told them not to. It’s unclear why it would be good to tell them not to.

Richard Taylor in 1840 called split infinitives a “disagreeable affectation”, which is more a stylistic dislike than a reasoned grammatical principle. Solomon Barrett Jr in 1859 called them a “common fault” and “highly improper”, but he didn’t say what was faulty and improper about them.

The first big hitter to weigh in was the Cambridge scholar and Dean of Canterbury Henry Alford, in his popular 1864 book Plea for the Queen’s English. He reports that a correspondent drew his astonished attention to the existence of split infinitives:

But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And, when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

Here we finally have a reason: don’t do it because it’s not commonly done. That’s actually a valid reason, or at least it might have been a century earlier. But in 1864 Alford’s confidence was painfully ill-informed. An impressive paper by Fitzedward Hall, in the American Journal of Philology in 1882, made this clear. The following passage is Hall’s response to Alford, but it serves equally well as a response to Nevile Gwynne’s radio interview:

In this judgment, Dean Alford distinctly lays claim to complete acquaintance with the scope and contents of a universal negative; and it rarely happens that a pretension of this kind can confront, with safety, any but vulgar and uncritical receptiveness. The certitude of decanal instinct, however confidently professed, is not, forsooth, to the eye of science, so conclusive as a demonstration of Euclid. With tiresome frequency, Dean Alford has betrayed how insufficiently he was qualified, as a student of English, to arbitrate positively on a matter of usage.

Hall compiled a hefty list of split infinitives as used by greater and lesser writers through history; many of my examples above are from his paper (others are from Fredericus Theodorus Visser, 1966). He concluded:

The question of usage, as concerns the matter in hand, consequently calls for no further particulars of proof.

For my money, Hall won the war for the right to split infinitives. Others added more research and arguments, but his efforts irreparably holed the prohibitionists’ ship below the waterline. Alas, it took a long time to sink.

The prohibitionists had two great weaknesses. The first was that they had (and still have) no arguments to make except a dislike of change. To quickly survey a few more early campaigners: Richard Meade Bache in 1869 said split infinitives were a “mistake”, but he didn’t say why. William B Hodgson in 1881 said they were “contrary to established precedent”, but by then he was even more out-of-date than Alford. And Albert Newton Raub in 1897 said that infinitives “must not” be split, but not why.

Their second great weakness was that the splitters did (and still do) have a good argument. Some linguistic changes are merely between two different ways of doing something, neither with more intrinsic merit than the other. But split infinitives are bloody useful.

The first grammarian (as far as I know) to make this argument was Goold Brown in 1878:

It is true, that the adverb is, in general, more elegantly placed before the preposition than after it; but, possibly, the latter position of it may sometimes contribute to perspicuity, which is more essential than elegance

George Bernard Shaw was more emphatic in 1892:

Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it.

Further grammarian support came from Otto Jespersen in 1905, saying that split infinitives can “contribute to the clearness of the sentence by showing at once what word is qualified by the adverb”, and in the same year, from Charles Talbut Onions, agreeing that they can help to “avoid ambiguity”.

Thomas Lounsbury in 1908 mocked the emptiness of the prohibitionists’ case and predicted that any successes they had won by bullying insecure writers would be short-lived:

If men come seriously to believe that ambiguity can be lessened or emphasis increased by changing the order of words in any given phrase, we may be sure that in time the habit of so doing will be adopted whenever it is deemed desirable. It is clear that most of those who now refrain from the practice under discussion no longer do so instinctively, as was once the case, but rather under compulsion. They refrain, not because they feel that it is unnatural or unidiomatic, but because they have been told that it is improper. Artificial bulwarks of this sort will never hold.

Henry Fowler in 1908 (with his brother Francis) said that while split infinitives were “ugly”, there were more important things for a writer to worry about. By 1926, he had come round to the view that one should “split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial”.

George Curme in 1931 said that the construction “should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression”. Ernest Gowers in 1954 called the prohibition a “bad rule” and a “taboo” that can have a “devastating effect” on the impressionable, because it “increases the difficulty of writing clearly”. Theodore Bernstein in 1965 said that “the natural position for an adverb modifying an infinitive should be just ahead of the infinitive and just after the to”.

I think Bernstein overgeneralises: many infinitives are better unsplit. The obvious benefit of putting the adverb inside the infinitive is that this ties it firmly to that verb – very useful if there are other verbs nearby. But even when unclearness isn’t a risk, having an extra possible place for the adverb gives you more freedom to alter the rhythm and emphasis of the sentence. Having the option to split increases the expressive power of English, which is absolutely a good thing.

And absolutely a bad thing are the contortions that some people put their prose through to avoid splitting. Stan Carey and Bryan Garner give examples of “how awkwardly to avoid split infinitives”, as Stan perfectly puts it.

Some recent commentators, while seeing the value of the split infinitive, still recommend against it.

Kingsley Amis in 1997 condemned “the best known of the imaginary rules that petty linguistic tyrants seek to lay upon the English language” – but he still collaborated with the tyranny. “I personally think that to split an infinitive is perfectly legitimate, but I do my best never to split one in public and I would never advise anybody else to do so.”

Robert Burchfield in 1998 advised that the default should be not to split: “Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence.”

And the Economist Style Guide agrees that “the ban is pointless”. But “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.

If you, as a writer or editor, are looking at a split infinitive, if you truly have good reason to think that some of your audience will react badly to it, if you think that unsplitting it won’t reduce clarity or create stiltedness that others in your audience might react badly to, and if you really have the time to spend on appeasing ill-informed ideologues, then go ahead and avoid split infinitives.

Otherwise, I can do no better than to share Pam Peters’s 2004 advice to use your judgement:

Don’t split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence.

Do split infinitives to avoid awkward wording, to preserve a natural rhythm, and especially to achieve the intended emphasis and meaning.

And I’ll close by repeating Henry Alford’s argument: “there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage”. Split infinitives are common usage. The war is long over, but there are still some people who can’t accept it. Let’s help them to finally find peace.

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  • nigelgrant  On October 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Nice one, Tom. Gwynne is amazing – I don’t understand why the Beeb gives him air time. He made similarly assertions last April in an episode of Saturday Live. I asked Auntie for a chance to present the other side, but never got a reply.

    Fowler said in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926 that people who worry about split infinitives are “bogy-haunted creatures”.

    The usual good reason for splitting is when an adverb(ial) sits between two verbs, at least one of which is an infinitive. If there’s one infinitive and the context doesn’t make clear which verb-adverb bond is right, splitting the infinitive can be a big help. If there are two infinitives, one must be split.

  • Matt Gordon  On October 29, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    This is a very well-argued post that I hope to share with History of English students. You might also be interested in a recent article in Journal of English Linguistics by Moisés Perales-Escudero on the history of the split infinitive and the proscription against it:

    • Tom Freeman  On October 30, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks Matt, the article looks interesting. I’ll give it a read.

  • korhomme  On January 25, 2014 at 9:34 am

    German verbs can be “split”, though in a rather different way to English. Some verbs are compound, that is, they have a modifier prefix.

    So, ‘kaufen’ means to buy (or buying); ‘einkaufen’ means to shop/shopping.

    With einkaufen, you can get:

    Ich kaufe mir einen Mantel ein. (I buy to me a coat.)

    It gets confusing for a non native when the modifiers can either be ‘for or against’ etc. You then have to read to the end of a very long sentence to find out whether something’s happening or not. German grammar is regular, but very complicated and difficult; but the spelling is very regular.

  • John Cowan  On February 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    “Robert Burchfield in 1998 advised that the default should be not to split”

    Surely this would be more idiomatic and natural as “should be to not split”? As written, the reader is only told that splitting is not the default, leaving what the default actually is to an implicature.

  • pipmarks  On March 10, 2014 at 9:37 am

    So we agree to boldly split because others have split before and because there is no good reason to not not split…yes?


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