Is it Ever Acceptable to Split an Infinitive in Professional Writing? Sure!

The English language wasn’t planned.

By the fifth century A.D., a muddle of cultures was producing a new language in Britain. The related but different languages of western German invaders mingled with the Celtic languages already in place, some words and grammar from French, and the last vestiges of Latin from the long Roman occupation. The common tongue that emerged—which we now call Old English—was a tremendously vital language that readily appropriated words and usage from everywhere.

Needless to say, such an improvised, polyglot language as early English didn’t come with an instruction manual. Just as improvisation produced the language itself, the rules for English grammar were readily cobbled together when needed. The following witticism, paraphrased from an observation by writer James Davis Nicoll, explains how that works out:

English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.

Our Focus Today: The Infinitive

The infinitive is one of those grammatical constructions that pop onto our radar every so often: one part of speech dressing up in its play clothes to fill the role of another part of speech. An infinitive is a verb acting as a noun. An infinitive is formed from the word “to” and the base form of a verb: to sing, to operate, to do, to live, or to be.

Infinitives are amazingly versatile. Because they function as nouns or noun phrases, they can serve as subjects of a sentence (To perform on Broadway is the goal of many young actors), as predicate nouns (My life’s ambition is to work as a podiatrist, just like my Dad), or as direct objects (The police pulled Scott over for failing to yield). But infinitives retain some of the powers of their origins as verbs; for instance, infinitives of transitive verbs can have their own direct objects (Martha used Mom’s recipe to make chicken soup). You use infinitives every day in conversation; a moment’s thought will convince you how adaptable they are.

So What’s the Big Deal About Split Infinitives?

Remember that English grammar has mostly been invented or contrived after the fact. Around the time of the U.S. Civil War, a British grammarian, translator, and churchman named Henry Alford published a popular guide to English. It’s hard to imagine a grammar advice book being a bestseller today, but life was different in England in the 1860s.

In his book, A Plea for the Queen’s English, Alford argued that because the infinitive was expressed as a single word in Latin, French, Spanish, and many other languages related to English, the “to” + verb construction should be treated as an unbreakable unit in English, too. Nothing, he said, may come between “to” and the verb; doing so would create a split infinitive.

People believed Dean Alford. They read his book, said, “Yes, that makes sense,” and adopted his rule into the curriculum of the day as if it were a bedrock principle of English. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort.

To Boldly Split Infinitives That No One Has Split Before

Even today, grade school teachers are lecturing their students about how shameful it is to split an infinitive, because their teachers in turn enforced the same rule. But modern usage experts strongly reject this rigid position. It’s perfectly okay to split an infinitive when doing so will clarify the meaning of a sentence. And sometimes there is no other good way to express the intended meaning except by putting words between “to” and the verb of an infinitive; for example, Dr. Thorson’s compassion when he delivered the diagnosis seemed to more than make up for his reserved bedside manner earlier.

Let’s look at some examples of professional web content I have seen recently. Any of the split infinitives in these sentences can be justified by noticing how they help communicate meaning to the reader:

  • If you need to eventually get into the right-hand lane, wait until the turn is complete and then move over safely.
  • When a driver is drunk, it can be hard for him to properly judge perspective and distance.
  • Learn how to correctly measure your child’s foot.
  • An alarmingly high proportion—90 percent—of nursing homes and hospice care centers do not have adequate staffing to properly care for their patients.

That doesn’t give you the license to split infinitives willy-nilly. A split infinitive can easily make a sentence sound awkward or muddle the meaning of a critical phrase. Also, many of your readers are likely to recall only one rule from their early Language Arts classes, and you can bet that will be the rule against splitting the infinitive; so, if you split them often, you’re likely to receive caustic feedback from the ill-informed. Handling negative comments is tough enough under the best circumstances, but it’s even harder when you know you’ve done nothing wrong.

Adapt or Die

If your writing style gets in the way of your mission to inform readers and to convert them into clients or customers, then you have chosen the wrong writing style for the project. This is unacceptable, because your content is the heart of your website, and your website is a primary driving force behind your marketing efforts.

Something has to give way, because you cannot connect with clients who are tuning out your message. The only thing you can control is your writing style, which must adapt to meet the expectations of your readers. That may require obeying the “never split an infinitive rule,” even though you know that the rule isn’t really valid.

Now that you have assembled an in-house writing team and you’re managing your own website content with the Dynamic Self-Syndication™ system, you have total control over what is posted to your website. What goes hand-in-hand with that power is an equal responsibility to make sure your website is performing its best for your company, law firm, or medical practice. If you need a nudge in the right direction (or even validation that your instincts are on the right track), connect with us by phone, social media, or our online contact form. We’re waiting for your message right now.

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