The Mystery of the Split Infinitive

I feel slightly wicked for committing this heresy to written form, and disloyal to my father (he should rest in peace), who spent my formative years imparting to me his tough-love of language, but I am ready to allow an occasional cautious and mindful splitting of the infinitive. There. I’ve said it.

The infinitive is the form of the verb that starts with to: To think, to write, to edit, to publish, to be a huge success and make a ton of money—But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

In Latin (and in many other languages, too) the infinitive is a single word, a special form of the verb: cogitare (to think), scribere (to write), corrigere (to edit), edare or vulgare (to publish), existere (which means be, not just in the sense of exist but also become). Since it’s not possible to split a Latin single-word infinitive, the Powers That Used to Be carved it into stone that we were forbidden to split our English ones, even though it was not just possible but convenient, rational, and not a crime (Sorry, Dad).


Many times there is a shade of meaning added to a phrase containing a split infinitive. For example, Oxford Dictionaries offers this elegant explanation:

You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]

doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:

You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

True dat. So, meaning no disrespect to Cicero or Ovid or my father, I say split them, if it’s necessary, and have a clear conscience (te absolvo), but know what you are doing, and do it with care.

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