linguistics and lexicography Live English Real Grammar

Real Grammar Quiz, Question 4: Is it OK to split an infinitive?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.



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In our quiz and video series, we’ve been discussing evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. The fourth question in the quiz asked you to decide which was the more natural of these two sentences:

A. The management decided gradually to phase in flexible working hours.
B. The management decided to gradually phase in flexible working hours.

The grammar issue is about split infinitives, and whether they are acceptable. A split infinitive is when you place an adverb between the word “to” and the verb that comes next, for example in a sentence like “Congress voted to immediately approve the new medicine”.

Our recommendation is straightforward: sentence B. (“decided to gradually phase in”) is not only more natural, but much better than A. (“decided gradually to phase in”). The “unsplit” infinitive in sentence A. looks clumsy and awkward but, worse than that, it is not at all clear, because we can’t be sure which verb the adverb gradually is modifying. The writer probably intended to say that flexible working hours would be gradually phased in, but it’s equally possible to conclude that the management decided gradually on this course of action.

For most linguists, the injunction against split infinitives is a ridiculous, outdated prescriptive “rule” with no logical justification. (We have discussed this before in the blog.) The usually cautious Grammar Girl has no hesitation in describing this rule as “misguided”, and she concludes: “You won’t find a modern grammar book or style guide that says you should never split an infinitive”.

If only that were true. Recently published grammar guides from Nevile Gwynne and Simon Heffer stick rigidly to the view that the split infinitive is wrong, while the still influential Strunk & White only accept it in certain circumstances. More to the point, corpus evidence clearly shows the lengths to which some writers will go in order to avoid splitting an infinitive, as the following examples show:

We are happy publicly to support the Government, despite the difference of views in the Chamber.
So there is a need briefly to describe the background to the present situation.
After we started this training, I began continuously to reflect on my classroom practice.
Then they will be able successfully to pass off spoofed emails as real.
They doubtless did what they could permanently to secure so powerful a protection.
The ability rapidly to factor large integers would not help a plant to survive in the jungle.

Our corpus data includes hundreds of clunky sentences like these. All would have been clearer, and far less awkward, if the writers had split their infinitives. But such is the hostility – even now – towards this practice that many people will opt for mangled and ambiguous sentences rather than risk the disapproval of ill-informed prescriptivists. Indeed, the usually sensible Economist Style Guide has a bizarre ruling on the issue, agreeing that the rule has no rational foundation, but concluding that “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.

This is certainly not our conclusion at Macmillan. We can say unambiguously that you should ignore the so-called rule against split infinitives. What matters is the clarity of the message and the elegance of the sentence – and both are too often compromised by writers’ misguided efforts to avoid splitting an infinitive.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the fifth video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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