This week in a Better Business Writing class, an attendee named Carmen told me how important it was to her to avoid splitting an infinitive. Why? Because an excellent teacher had drilled into Carmen’s head that an infinitive should not be split! Because of Carmen’s high regard for this teacher, she worked to write documents that contain no split infinitives.
Carmen, you have paid homage to that excellent writing instructor long enough! Go ahead–split an infinitive!
I told Carmen in all honesty that I had not even thought about splitting infinitives for years–I split them whenever the rhythm of the sentence encourages me to do so. I also told her that I would research the topic to be sure that I am not breaking any essential rules of business writing.
But before I report my research, what is an infinitive?
An infinitive is a verb phrase that begins with the word to:
- to speak
- to understand
In some languages, infinitives are just one word. For example, in Spanish the infinitives above are written like this:
In a split infinitive in English, to is separated from the verb by one or more words, like this:
- to always speak
- to really understand
Sometime, somewhere, someone must have created a rule against splitting all infinitives (someone like Carmen’s teacher), but I’m not sure why. After all, which one sounds better in the pair below?
- I have been taught to always speak distinctly. (split)
- I have been taught always to speak distinctly. (not split)
I prefer choice 1. To me, choice 2 communicates that I have been “taught always,” but the word always applies to speaking.
Or how about this pair?
- His goal is to really understand the employees’ needs. (split)
- His goal is really to understand the employees’ needs. (not split)
Again, I prefer the first example because it is very clear. In choice 2, really seems to mean “actually,” but that was not my intention as the writer.
I checked all the relevant reference books on my shelf, and here is my report:
The Gregg Reference Manual states: “Splitting an infinitive . . . is no longer considered incorrect. However, it should be avoided when it produces an awkward construction. . . .”
The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive verb . . . to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound.”
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP) advises, “In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb.” It adds, “Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning.”
In Write Right, author Jan Venolia writes, “Split infinitives . . . have long been an acceptable way to avoid awkward writing.”
These style manuals do not mention split infinitives:
- Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
I did find one reference book on my shelf that reinforces Carmen’s teacher’s rule. That book is HOW 7: A Handbook for Office Workers, copyright 1995. However, its examples made me even stronger in my view that splitting an infinitive can be a fine thing. Here’s one of them:
- We will need to scrutinize carefully all applicants for this position.
To me, the split “to carefully scrutinize” would have been stronger.
I want to boldly encourage business writers everywhere to freely split infinitives whenever doing so brings power and clarity to your sentences. And when your grammar-checker points out a split infinitive for you, it’s your decision whether to keep it or change it–not your former teacher’s.
Carmen, go for it!