Split Infinitives


A grammar concept we might have happily forgotten since our school days (or maybe right after the test) is the split infinitive. So what is it, and do we need to care? Here’s my take.

An infinitive is the “to” form of a verb (“to ask,” “to advocate”), so “splitting an infinitive” is putting a word between to and the verb that goes with it (to boldly go, to happily forget). Playing strictly by the rules, we’re supposed to avoid splitting an infinitive – but I believe most readers will not notice or object to our taking this liberty. So this is an admonition from our school days we can largely dismiss in workplace writing.

But when we are writing a more formal document and trying to be on our best behavior or writing someone who might get distracted by this minor infraction, we can usually obey the rule by just rearranging the words.

Split infinitive: I want to temporarily halt this discussion.
The repair job: I want to halt this discussion temporarily. 

Notice, however, that on occasion rearranging isn’t the solution.

To truly understand your idea, I need more background. Where else can “truly” go and sound natural? Here we need to let the split infinitive stand or reinvent the sentence. Changing “truly” to “completely” is one way: To understand your idea completely, I need more background.

Splitting a verb phrase: Permission granted

On the other hand, note that splitting a verb phrase, like “should (immediately) recover,” “is (madly) shoveling,” or “may (reluctantly) attend,” has no prohibition. In fact, putting an adverb inside a verb phrase often delivers maximum impact:

I hope I have quickly answered your questions about splitting infinitives and verb phrases.  

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml. 

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