Why Aren't You Supposed to 'Split' Your Infinitives?

It is taught even in elementary grade school English classes: don’t “split” your infinitives. But why aren’t you supposed to split your infinitives? I probably do it all the time, and as far as I know, it in no way affects the meaning of what you are saying:

“The right of the people to peaceably assemble”


“The right of the people peaceably to assemble”

both mean exactly the same thing, don’t they? And frankly, I even prefer the first one, split infinitive and all.

Thank you in advance to all who reply :slight_smile:

You can. It’s all just a bit of leftover grammar voodoo. I don’t think you can find a single grammarian who would insist on not splitting infinitives.

As for why? Some idiot decided that English should follow Latin grammar and since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t in English. Well, thing is, in Latin infinitives consist of a single word, so you couldn’t split them if you tried.

I have been told that this was an idea promoted by Victorian grammarians, who thought Latin was the best language ever and English would be improved by being more like it. In Latin, an infinitive is a single word (thus unsplittable). But English is derived from the old Anglo Saxon. I don’t know if Anglo-Saxon infinitives could be split. I say split em if you want. (English teacher in a former life.)

It’s often bad style, though not inevitably. Personally I just go by ear.

In your particular example, I would actually go with for “The right of the people to assemble peaceably…”

Ditto to all the previous. You can, and may split an infinitive in English. But not in Latin.

Old English infinitives were one word, much like modern Dutch or German, so they couldn’t be split either. However, at some point the particle “to” began to be used with infinitives in certain constructions. I’m sure there are experts here who can describe exactly how that happened; but I’m sure it’s similar to the limited context in modern German, in which zu is used with infinitives.

I suspect it arose out of phrases such as “good to eat”; the “to” then became linked with the verb.

everyone else is correct, and i imagine you’re quite satisfied now. but i have to put my linguistics minor to use SOMEwhere, so here ya go:

basically, some bishop in yon victorian times decided english sucked because it wasn’t latin. this was a very popular view at the time. he took it the extra step though, and wrote a whole book on how to make english more latiny. no split infinitives, no sentence-ending prepositions*, and so on. the upper classes took him at his word, because he was a bishop, and everyone else followed suit because talking like rich people is almost as good as actually being rich (this is also why BBC english had such a good run).
bishop whatshisface was, of course, not the first nor last person to invent language rules out of personal whim (never let someone argue you out of a double negative by using the math analogy [negative times negative]. language is neither math nor logic, which is why it is so much more useful in real life than they are). there is even a special linguistic term for invented grammatical rules: ipsi dipsic (sp). this is, appropriately, a latin term, and means something like “because i said so”

  • quoth winston churchill: “that is a rule up with which i will not put”

You’re thinking of Robert Lowth. I don’t know if he was directly responsible for the split infinitive superstition, but he talk a lot of grammatical nonsense, and much of it was passed down as gospel by generations of English teachers to follow.

Ipse dixit

You forgot the most famous split infinitive:

“To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

And in that case, the use is by far the best way to say it: it rhymes “bo” with “go” and “no,” and each of those rhymes is the stressed part of an iamb. "To go boldly . . . " is a much weaker phrasing.

Bishop Whatsisface notwithstanding, a lot of language rules make getting your point across much easier. Capital letters are handy, for example.

I also think that the double negative ‘rule’ is a very useful one - using two negatives can create confusion about the meaning of a phrase. Consider this lousy legal document, open in front of me right now:

What’s this trying to say exactly? Failing or omitting to not perform incompetently? Whatever the hell that means, it’s not what the author intended. Multiple negatives are also also inefficient and, IMHO, inelegant.

Yeah, but does anybody really want to argue that when Mick Jagger sings “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he really means he does get satisfaction?

Double negatives are not inherently illogical or confusing. In many languages double negatives are required constructions: In Polish, for example, you’d say “Nie mam nic,” literally, “I don’t have nothing” to express the idea “I don’t have anything.” You cannot form the sentence grammatically using the latter structure. Same goes for the rest of the Slavic languages. Same for Hungarian. Same for many other languages in the world. It’s a concept called negative agreement, and that’s a construction many English speakers use naturally. I don’t think it adds confusion most of the time. However, in formal use it must be omitted because nobody expects that construction in a formal setting.

What others have said.

I’ll just add that I was amused to learn that there are some environments in which an infinitive is obligatorily “split”, as in:

This example was noted in the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Hey, I accept that double negatives are common in foreign languages and English slang, and often the meaning’s clear, eg the Stones song you mentioned. I also accept that they might have artistic / literary use.

Yet while they don’t create confusion all the time, they are far more likely to do so than the more grammatically correct method, and they’re almost never necessary. There are a couple of good reasons for this rule besides snobbishness. It shouldn’t be characterized as a ridiculous rule, in the same league as the Latin-based rules against split infinitives etc.

It may not have been what he meant, but I’d put money on it being the truth :slight_smile:

The original was “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” But that’s a whole nother discussion. One split infinitive, one false generic.

And on the final epsidode of Enterprise they used “man” again. Just mentioning it because it was so non-PC-jarring to hear.

I disagree. (The double negatives thing wasn’t made up based on Latin, but it certainly was another one of those whole-cloth rules, made up because it seemed “logical”.) The fact that negative agreement is common in many, many languages including most English dialects indicates that it’s not any great barrier to comprehension. No doubt one can come up with a very few examples of it creating ambiguity, but language is like that. Languages are extremely complex and there is always the possibility of creating ambiguities, and that’s where we get wordplay and, sometimes, great poetry. You can’t somehow surgically remove all the ambiguity from human language, and permitting double negatives doesn’t create tons of ambiguous situations.

No it don’t.

Double negatives are simply bad logic. I do not understand why lawyers love double negatives and questions phrased in the negative so much. I did have fun with an attorney in a deposition once.

ATTY: Isn’t it true that you did XYZ?
Me: Yes, it isn’t.
ATTY: What?