This analytic overview, which is based on extensive field observation using a computerized study program, is reprinted from the "Cobuild Wordwatch Articles" -- http://www.cobuild.collins.co.uk/cgi-bin/wwatchlook --

 

THE " SPLIT " INFINITIVE

 

A split infinitive is a `to'-infinitive which has the `to' separated from the base form by an adverb or adverb-group:

...the international community, unwilling to directly confront the Bosnian Serbs.

We're going to now simply join with them in their struggle.

Some people think split infinitives are not acceptable and believe that the adverb should be put elsewhere in the clause. However, the structure is very common in real English; there are over 13,000 examples in the Bank of English. Cobuild software enables us to analyze which adverbs are most frequent and significant in split infinitives; over a sample of 1000, we come up with the following top ten:

really

just

actually

not

further

fully

even

finally

completely

ever

Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at a few types of context where it might be legitimate to use a split infinitive; the above list may give you some clues.

Meanwhile, as a taster, consider the following sentence from the Bank of English:

The government is also paying workers compensation to partially offset the new cost.

What would be the effect on the meaning if the adverb were placed elsewhere in the sentence?

 

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Last week I gave you a sentence containing a split infinitive:

The government is also paying workers compensation to partially offset the new cost.

and asked you consider what would happen if the adverb partially were shifted to a different position in the sentence.

British schoolchildren were always taught (at least in my day) that the split infinitive was wrong, and that the adverb should be placed either before the `to', as in:

The physical scientist attempts objectively to observe a system that is not altered by his act of observation.

or somewhere after the verb, for example after the object of a transitive verb or at the end of the sentence. The following sentence covers both these cases:

It is important that the adolescent be able to trust the therapist completely.

What if we try these alternative positions for the adverb in our initial example sentence? First, before `to':

The government is also paying workers compensation partially to offset the new cost.

A subtle shift of meaning has taken place; in the original sentence, partially qualifies the verb offset, indicating that the compensation would not cover the new cost fully, but saying nothing about any additional reasons the government might have for paying compensation. In the new sentence, however, partially qualifies the whole infinitive clause, which is one of purpose, and therefore suggests that the government had other motives apart from offsetting the new cost. Yet, for all we know, the entire cost might well have been offset.

If we now place the adverb at the end of the sentence:

The government is also paying workers compensation to offset the new cost partially.

there is no great change of meaning with respect to our original, yet the whole focus of the sentence has changed. Placing an adverb at the end of clause endows it with a certain degree of significance or emphasis, and so the implication here is that it was an important preoccupation of the government that the compensation should not cover the new cost fully.

There is only one way of preserving the original meaning while avoiding a split infinitive - by placing partially between offset and the new cost. Yet this breaks an even more cardinal rule of English word order, that an adverbial should not intervene between a verb and its object. (Teachers, you don't want your pupils saying **I like very much English food**, do you?)

The conclusion must be that a split infinitive is the best and most economical way of conveying the exact intended meaning here.

The following Bank of English examples seem to me to fall into a similar category. Try to alter the position of the adverb and see what different meanings you get.

Students were asked to gradually assume responsibility for performing the skill.

An anaesthetic is injected into the base of your spine during labour to temporarily numb the nerves that cover the lower half of your body.

It is wrong to deny honest police the powers they need to honestly investigate crime.

More on split infinitives next week.

 

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Two weeks ago, I gave you a list of the ten adverbs which figure most frequently and significantly in split infinitives, based on data from the Bank of English. With the exception of not (of which more in a future WORDWATCH), they are all adverbs whose function is to emphasize, intensify, or focus attention on the following verb or phrase. Here are some real-life examples featuring those adverbs:

...the book "How to Really Love Your Child".

I suppose if one were to just think about it, it would become obvious.

Our problem is getting this very, very advanced technology to actually work.

...Kelvin Skerrett, who sacrificed his seat in order not to further delay the overloaded plane.

It seemed undignified to even think such a thing.

It felt wonderful to finally get a goal at Southampton the other week.

...his attempt to completely reconstruct the foundations.

We find the same phenomenon with other adverbs that are used in a similar way:

To simply describe these fires as a disaster would be an understatement.

It is unusual for a judge to effectively invite an appeal against his own decision.

There is an obvious rationale for the split infinitive here; in finite clauses, these adverbs typically come before the verb they qualify:

Just think: no party since 1935 has won more than half the popular vote.

...Alliance & Leicester's purchase, which further delayed the process.

...just over 15 million pounds, largely spent completely reconstructing Paris's famous Pont-Neuf bridge.

The TODAY newspaper simply describes it as a victory for freedom.

While in some of the split infinitive examples it would be possible to place the adverb elsewhere without a change of meaning or loss of elegance (eg, It seemed undignified even to think such a thing), in others it is well nigh impossible. For instance, I defy anyone to convincingly rephrase (oops!) "How to Really Love Your Child" without altering the meaning.

 

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Two more broad categories of split infinitives, which overlap with the ones we've looked at over the past two weeks.

Firstly, in reported requests and commands:

I then ask them to gently tap a ball on the ground in front of them.

He confronted the two men and asked them to kindly leave the house.

I want to ask you to just keep calm and be polite.

I beg all those who are moving from place to place to please stay where they are.

Tell them to always remember that drill, even at traffic lights and supervised crossings.

To each of the above examples there corresponds a direct, imperative sentence beginning with an adverb ("Kindly leave the house...", "Just keep calm...", "Always remember this drill...", etc). The split infinitive therefore seems natural in the indirect sentence because it enables you to stay close to the exact wording of the direct sentence.

Secondly, in infinitive clauses where a transitive verb is followed by a lengthy object group:

It is troubling that it has taken so long for the government to seriously address the problems revealed by this catalogue of disasters.

I am even in the position to exclusively reveal the time and the place of the impending happy event.

...failure of a safety officer to properly establish a command post identifiable by a flashing blue light.

To place the adverb after the object-group would remove it too far from the verb it relates to; to place it before the to would take it out of the relevant clause altogether; to place it between the infinitive verb and object would break a rule I mentioned two weeks ago.

Again, the split infinitive seems the neatest and most obvious choice.

 

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Here are some more split infinitives from the Bank of English:

The men then took it in turn to sexually assault the women.

...the assumption of their right to verbally abuse me because I was there.

The gadget is used to artificially inseminate cows.

As yet, it is still virtually impossible to surgically remove the surface fat known as cellulite.

...those isolated towns and cities that they, in fact, want to ethnically cleanse.

In these examples, the split infinitive seems appropriate because the adverb/verb combination forms a single concept or strong collocation which is more than the sum of its parts. Can you think of any other similar combinations? (Preferably less unsavoury ones!)

A slight variation on this theme is when the word not intervenes between the to and the verb form:

She would attempt to not speak a word for 24 hours.

The best thing to do was to not say anything about the paper being wrong.

The women's movement has freed women to not have children, to not get married, to be actresses, businesswomen and construction workers.

...an obligation under our democratic system to respond honestly to questions before Congress and to not hide the facts or distort the facts.

Here, the negative form corresponds to a deliberate or positive action, as in my particular favourite example:

We expect people here to not follow the rules.

After all, if we had been meant to not split the infinite, why does it consist of two separate words?

 

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Over the past few weeks, I have been looking critically at one of the traditonal rules of "good" English usage - that one should not split a to-infinitive - and considering a few general cases where a confident user of English might feel justified in breaking this rule. As a glance at the Bank of English shows, even that most venerable of English institutions, the Times, is no stranger to the split infinitive. Those who still cling rigidly to the rule are denying themselves an opportunity to use language creatively and resourcefully.

It would be a shame to leave this topic without mentioning the most famous contemporary instance of a split infinitive, from the opening credits of the TV programme "Star Trek":

To boldly go where no man has gone before...

In "Star Trek: The Next Generation", this was subtly altered to:

To boldly go where no-one has gone before...

(Note how the rules of political correctness take priority over the rules of traditional grammar!)

In the Bank of English, there are no fewer than 30 examples of boldly in a split infinitive, and 22 of these are for the phrase to boldly go. The "Star Trek" connection is present in most of them, in a punning kind of way:

Star Trek is to boldly go into a third series with an entirely new crew.

A cartoon dog is to boldly go where no other has gone before.

...its bold mission to boldly go where pop has been many times before, albeit with a knowing grin.

I have been ordered to boldly go to the divorce courts by my wife.

...Clifford's ability to boldly spin stories that no man has spun before.

In my favourite example, the split infinitive with boldly stands as an iconic and ironic signifier of split infinitives in general:

...men who shamelessly mixed their metaphors, left no cliche unturned, and for whom infinitives had been created to boldly split.

Is there a thesis here about the influence of popular culture on grammar? That will be for others to pursue. In next week's WORDWATCH I intend to boldly go on to other topics.

 

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Apologies for returning to this subject again so soon, but a keen Wordwatcher has pointed out a further instance where split infinitives are common, namely where the intervening word or phrase is an expletive. Most of the following examples are from the spoken component of The Bank of English, hence the rather eccentric wording in a few cases:

I'm going to f***ing kill you!

I need to know! I need to f***ing know!

`I'm trying to deal with it!' Nikitin snarled... `I'm trying to f***ing deal with it!'

If I'm going to do something I used to f***ing do it.

How many bloody times do I have to bloody tell you!

I'd rather just leave it and move house. But I'm not going to bloody well leave it.

If you want anything done round here, you have to bloody well do it yourself.

`You cannot board the flight now,' the girl said. `I can, I'm going to bloody well try!'

Grammatical purists will say that this simply proves their point, that the split infinitive is a horrendous solecism found only in the coarsest language. Nevertheless, there are one or two interesting things to be said. Firstly, the above examples fit into a general pattern which I mentioned a few weeks ago <backwatch.html>, where the offending adverb has an emphasizing or intensifying function. Secondly, note how often the phrase containing the expletive echoes the wording used earlier in the sentence or the exchange, to express angry insistence or defiance. (The example suggested by my correspondent was: `Go home.' - `I don't want to f***ing go home!').

Finally, something that could be interpreted as supporting the purists' point of view. As our friendly Wordwatcher points out, the split infinitive with an expletive can be seen as a special case of the phenomenon whereby the expletive comes in the middle of a single word. There are a few instances of this in the Bank of English:

It's on every rack, in every shop, every-bloody-where!

This is un-f***ing-believable!

Super-f***ing-glue, it's designed for gluing skin together.

On this line of argument, the `to'-infinitive has a similar grammatical status to a single word, and so it follows that it should be equally uncommon for an infinitive to be split as it is for a single word to be split.

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