Monday, March 5, 2012

Grammar ABCs: I is for Infinitives

In the world of grammar rules, we’ve all heard that “split infinitives” are as unappealing as split ends.

But what does that mean, anyway? What is an infinitive and why should I care?

My grammar book defines the infinitive as a plain form of a verb plus “to.” Infinitives and infinitive phrases serve as adjectives, adverbs or nouns.

Example: To design a mall is to create an artificial environment. (two noun phrases)
Malls are designed to make shoppers feel safe. (adverb phrase)
The environment supports the impulse to shop. (adjective)

A split infinitive puts an adverb between the two parts of the infinitive. For example, Star Trek’s famous line: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Or: She decided to generously pour scotch into the stew.

It really is not wrong to split your infinitives, but when in doubt, don’t. Take a closer look at your sentence. Does it read better splitting the infinitive or not?

My example about the stew would read better as: She decided to pour scotch generously into the stew. Or, to avoid that dreaded “ly” word: She decided to pour a generous dollop of scotch into the stew.

There are many ways to rewrite your sentences to make them stronger. If splitting an infinitive does that, go for it. If it’s awkward, change it.

How do you feel about split infinitives?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. How do I feel about split infinitives? Highly intuitive, thank you! I read the paragraph about the noun, adjective, and adverb phrases several times and the net result was that it made my head hurt. If others feel the same, this is a great reason to hire a copy editor.

  2. I tend to notice them since I was taught to avoid them. But, after Star Trek, I figure this is an acceptable "rule" to break. Of course, it's a case-by-case decision.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. I agree that the way a sentence sounds - or the rhythm of the work - determines whether the rule rules. I hope all writers do read their work aloud. It can make so much difference in how you arrange and rearrange words and phrases.

  4. I try not to split my infinitives, but I can't be held accountable after a generous dollop of scotch.

  5. To split or not to split, that is the question.

  6. I've always wondered about this. It's one of those things my computer marks with a little squiggle green line. It has suggestions and sometimes I take them and sometimes not. You have shown me noun phrases, adverb phrases and adjectives but you never really told me what the infinitive is, or if you did, I didn't get it. When I first read your stew sentence, I instinctively rearranged it using the second version of your correction, though I didn't use 'dollop'. My grasp of text book english is sketchy at best though I'm well on the way to getting 4 books published. I am still wanting to learn.

  7. Sometimes following the rule to the letter just doesn't sound like speech, and I think it's okay to bend the rules a bit in dialogue. But too much splitting and dangling just looks sloppy. It's just sometimes ugly to split your infinitives sloppily with reckless abandon. Yikes, that hurts to write!

  8. Infinitives I can cope with...please can we have a post on commas. I have a love/hate realtionship with the pesky little critters. Is there any hard and fast rules on their use. I struggle with the comma or not to comma...

  9. LOL, Gayle and Christopher. Love all your comments. I's mostly intuitive for us and you need a program to tell the players, right?
    Maryanne, an infinitive is "to" plus a verb.

  10. I usually go by how a sentence sounds. I forgot that word, infinitive. That's from grammar school. (g)

    Morgan Mandel

  11. When I'm writing dialogue, I focus on rhythm and vocabulary choices.

  12. At school I was taught never to split an infinitive, so it really grates on me when I see it in a book. I always used to wince every time I heard 'to boldly go'!

  13. Shirley,

    I wrote a post on commas for the Blood-Red Pencil several moons ago:


    I usually avoid splitting infinitives, but I like the way "To boldly go..." was used in Star Trek. Maybe it was just desensitisation from many viewings, or perhaps it is Patrick Stewart's inflection, but I think the split infinitive highlights the word "boldly", um... beautifully ;-)

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  14. There is no rule against split infinitives. It's a total fiction promoted by Latinist 19th-century schoolteachers.

    If it sounds better, split away!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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