Is It Okay to Split an Infinitive?

a background of tropical leaves with the words on top: split infinitives

If you think back to your eleventh-grade English class, or if you’ve ever gone toe-to-toe with a pedantic member of the grammar police, you’ve probably heard that it’s not okay to split an infinitive.

Remember that an infinitive is a verb in its most basic form, with the word to and then the verb, such as

  • to love
  • to sleep
  • to play

A split infinitive is when an adverb is inserted between to and the verb. The most famous example comes from the opening to the original Star Trek TV series:

“to boldly go where no man has gone before”

Notice that boldly goes between to and go, thus splitting it. Here are some more examples of split infinitives:

  • to quickly write
  • to happily read
  • to frankly say

 

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Why do people think splitting infinitives is bad?
Basically, some people think it’s inelegant. This idea was made popular by Henry Alford, the dean of Canterbury, who, in 1864, said people shouldn’t do it because, ahem, they already weren’t doing it very often. He wrote in his book, The Queen’s English: “. . . this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers.”

But that’s not true. Lord Byron used split infinitives before the dean even wrote his book, as did Thomas Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, and many others. But somehow having Alford proclaim this made split infinitives a taboo.

However, split infinitives are natural in our everyday speech. You’ve probably already spoken multiple split infinitives today without even realizing it. And, over the years, authorities on the English language have relaxed their view.

In 2019, the Associated Press Stylebook came out and said using the split infinitive can actually make sentences easier to read and can better convey meaning, reversing its previous suggestion on the matter. So, it’s okay to split infinitives if it makes your message clearer or if it sounds more natural.

Now I want you to go boldly forth and split away!

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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Oh My: Gerunds and Possessives

Pretend you just got on the bus and the only open seat is next to a woman who sat her enormous purse on the empty seat. You want to ask politely if she could move her purse so you could sit beside her. Which question would you ask:

Do you mind me sitting here?
Do you mind my sitting here?

The second sentence is correct. If you picked the first sentence, don’t stress. People make this mistake so frequently that the correct way can often sound wrong.

But why is the second sentence correct? To understand, we first have to learn about gerunds.

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What is a gerund?
A gerund is a word that looks like a verb (because it ends in –ing) but acts like a noun. In the example above, sitting is the gerund.

Here are more examples. In these sentences, the gerund is in italics.

The waiting is the most difficult part.
His chattering is driving me crazy.
Your quizzing him is helping his test grades.

Gerunds and possessives
Because gerunds act like nouns, a possessive (my, your, his, her, their) goes before them. Think about regular nouns and how they use possessives.

my hat
your cat
his bat

Gerunds work the same way. Let’s look at the gerund dancing:

My dancing won first place.
Your dancing won second place.
Her dancing won third place.

Miscommunication
When you don’t use a possessive in front of a gerund, there can be a miscommunication. Let’s go back to our bus scenario. If you asked, “Do you mind me sitting here?” the emphasis is placed on me instead of the act of sitting. Essentially, you would be asking the woman whether she minded you personally. However, if you ask, “Do you mind my sitting here?” the emphasis is placed on sitting and not on you.

Likewise, look at this example:

You snoring makes me want to poke my eyes out.
Your snoring makes me want to poke my eyes out.

In the first sentence, it sounds like you, personally, are why the speaker wants to hurt herself. In the second sentence, it sounds like it’s the snoring, and not simply you, that is causing the annoyance.

Remember
Gerunds look like verbs ending in –ing, but they act like nouns. Like a noun, a possessive goes before a gerund.

More examples:

I appreciate your taking the kids to school.
I think my vacationing was a good idea.
Do you mind my staring at you?

 

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

Sign up for the Dot and Dash newsletter to get writing tips and tricks and exclusive deals.  

Follow Dot and Dash on social media.
Twitter: @GrammarParty
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