A Word, Please: There is no rule against splitting infinitives


If you want to help another person — say, your employee — with his writing, there are several approaches you could take.

You might look at the big picture: How well are the ideas organized and expressed? Is the voice smooth and clear? Is the language appropriate for the audience and conducive to the message?

You might look at the mechanics: Is it punctuated well? Is every word necessary? Do the modifying phrases attach properly to the words they modify? Do verbs agree with subjects? Do all pronouns have clear antecedents?

Or you might fixate on some ridiculous bit of pedantic nonsense, scour your subordinate’s writing for every instance in which he violates your silly pet rule, then make him feel like an idiot for doing so.

In my experience, one of these approaches is favored far and away above the others. Care to guess which one?

The answer’s clear in a note I got recently from a reader named John, whose supervisor provided some “constructive feedback” on John’s writing, including this comment: “I see you’re a BIG fan of the split infinitive. I think I caught them all. Just because ‘Star Trek’ used ‘to boldly go’ doesn’t make it acceptable for business writing purposes.”

The dreaded “split infinitive” is a famous grammatical error. Unfortunately, it’s not an error at all.

But before we get to that, here’s a quick overview of infinitives.

The infinitive is the form of the verb that’s not “inflected” — altered to go with a specific subject or time frame. It’s a verb in its most basic, conceptual form: to walk, to think, to go, to have, to know. And on and on.

In a sentence like “Barry walks,” “Sara and I walk” or “Yesterday, you walked,” the verb changes slightly to match who’s doing it and when. That’s inflection, also called conjugation. But the verb in its most conceptual state — on which all these inflections are based — is the infinitive: to walk.

The infinitive is used in certain sentence structures, often with other verbs: Barry wants to walk. Sara and I hate to walk. Yesterday, you had to walk. Our mission is to walk where no man has walked before.

Notice how discussions of the infinitive include the word “to.” This helps us analyze the infinitive’s function in sentences, especially when looking at syntax across different languages. In the French sentence “Je veux marcher,” the Spanish “Yo quiero caminar” and the English “I want to walk,” the infinitives “marcher,” “caminar” and “to walk” work the same way, coming directly after another verb. But there’s one important difference. French and Spanish have single-word infinitives that contain an implied “to.” In English, we add “to” as a separate word.

Herein, some experts believe, lies the origin of the tragically resilient superstition: You can’t put anything — say, an adverb — in the middle of “marcher,” you can’t put anything in the middle of “caminar,” therefore it must be wrong to put something in the middle of “to walk.”

If that were true, it would mean you can’t say “to quickly walk” or “to happily walk” or “to boldly walk.” You would have to put the adverb either before “to” or after “walk.”

Happily, that’s false. Contrary to the legions of 1950s and ‘60s school teachers who spread this myth, there’s no rule against splitting an infinitive and there never was. In fact, most linguists will tell you that “to” isn’t really part of the infinitive. It’s just a particle that introduces it. So it’s impossible to split it. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with inserting an adverb or anything else after the “to” when the result is clear and natural.

When “Let’s get to really know each other” sounds better than “Let’s get really to know each other” or “Let’s get to know really each other,” split away.

This is just as true in formal writing as it is in casual usage. No business writer ever needs to worry about splitting infinitives. Too bad his supervisor doesn’t know that.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at