Grammar check: Spot a split infinitive

“YIKES!” was the subject listed in a recent email message from a co-worker. She explained her exclamation:

We both missed a split infinitive in my comments.  I wrote “to positively influence…”  No worries, I changed it! Phew!

Lauren. She’s a fellow grammar cop. The conversation was overheard by our boss, who asked a beautiful question:

What’s a split infinitive?

Lauren and I smiled at each other, and we launched into the explanation.

****

When was the last time you thought about your use of split infinitives? According to the American Heritage Book of English Usage, “people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought.” But should writers care about split infinitives? Before we get emotional about them, let’s figure out what they are.

What’s an infinitive? An infinitive is a simple present verb form that is usually preceded by the word to:

  • I had to leave.
  • She wants to clean.
  • They plan to sing.

A split infinitive is just that: the to and the infinitive are split by inserting an -ly adverb:

  • I had to quickly leave.
  • She wants to thoroughly clean.
  • They plan to loudly sing.

Don’t you catch yourself writing like that now and then? I sure do, and catch is the key word for me. Some grammarians cringe when they see a split infinitive; others don’t see the split as anything more than a writer’s choice. But writers who want to become better writers should give all grammatical constructions a second thought.

Adverbs modify verbs (and other parts of speech). They give the reader more information (how, when, where, etc.) and a better sentence flow. Read these sentences aloud:

  • I had to leave quickly.
  • She wants to clean thoroughly.
  • They plan to sing loudly.

Do you hear it? They’re not only grammatically correct, but also aesthetically pleasing. As a writer, I want my readers to enjoy what I see as a winning combination.

To split or not to split? It really is your choice and it has a lot to do with style, as it is with all your grammatical and word usage choices. But always consider your readers first and take your grammar cues from there. Often, what sounds fine with your friends doesn’t work well in your writing.

Question: What’s your stand on split infinitives?


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