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Split Infinitive - It's not always wrong

Split Infinitive

Split infinitives are not always wrong, but should be avoided when they result in an awkward construction.

The GMAT, SAT, and TOEFL tests allow split infinitives as credited (i.e., correct) answer choices.

There's an old "rule" in English that says that infinitives should never be separated--the two parts of an infinitive should always be kept together. I (Erin Billy) use the word rule in quotes because this admonition is pretty much now considered outdated and overly proscriptive by most people who study and enjoy the English language and grammar, at least that used in the United States.

But more on that in a minute. First, it is important to understand what an infinitive is. Be sure to visit this page if you're not sure what an infinitive is:

Examples of split infinitives

Let's look at some examples.

These are split infinitives:

  • to quickly leave
  • to always want
  • to easily excel
  • to not fail a class

Notice how the to part of the infinitive is separated from the base form of the verb by another word. In other words, a word or phrase comes between the to and the base form.

Now, let's change these examples so that they are not split infinitives:

  • to leave quickly
  • to want always
  • to excel easily
  • not to fail a class

Notice how the to part of the infinitive is now right next to the base form of the verb--the intervening word or phrase has been moved to either before or after the infinitive. In other words, nothing comes between the to and the base form.

Traditional grammar rules and the most formal grammar rules require that we not split infinitives; however, more modern and less formal American English grammar permits split infinitives when they sound better.

Why you need to learn about split infinitives for the GMAT, SAT, and TOEFL tests

Split infinitives occasionally show up on the GMAT, SAT, and TOEFL tests. Many test takers may have learned at some point that split infinitives are always wrong, and may therefore overlook an answer that will be considered correct on the particular test. So, it is important to know that a correct answer on these tests may include a split infinitive.

Discussion of split infinitives

The debate over whether split infinitives should be allowed in English is well documented and has been discussed ad nauseam.

Two very good discussions of split infinitives can be found here:

My intention here is not to debate whether split infinitives should be permitted in English, but rather to simply report the trends on the various ETS tests. ETS is the current creator of the content of the GMAT, SAT, and TOEFL tests and ultimately decides what is acceptable on the tests it creates. In other words, they decide whether or not you get that extra point on your admissions test. Their ruling could mean the difference between a 680 and 700 on the GMAT or a 1390 and 1400 on the SAT!

In general, it is acceptable to split an infinitive when it sounds okay to do so.

I know that this explanation is not very satisfying for some people (particularly those who love grammar rules), but without resorting to exceedingly difficult or needlessly complicated explanations that only a linguist could enjoy or understand, this is probably the best explanation of when it is acceptable to split an infinitive.

The classic example of an infinitive that sounds best when split, and sounds awkward when it is not split, comes from the voice-over heard during the opening credits of the popular American television show, Star Trek:

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission--to boldly go where no man has gone before.

(Note that the somewhat sexist use of the word man was changed to one in the later iterations of the classic series.)

If we were to try to keep the infinitive together, we'd end up with something like this:

  • These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission--to go boldly where no man has gone before.

This construction clearly lacks the nice fluid feel of the original, although it would probably be the second-best way to phrase the sentence.

  • * These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission--boldly to go where no man has gone before. *

This one just sounds terrible, and wouldn't be acceptable in Standard American English.

So in this example, we really have no choice but to split the infinitive.

Now here's an example of when not to split an infinitive:

  • * TestMagic clearly told Lucise to not go to the GMAT test center without identification. *

Although many native speakers of English would make such an utterance, the construction is frowned upon by most grammarians, perhaps only because the sentence could be corrected so easily:

  • This is an example of a CORRECT usage. TestMagic clearly told Lucise not to go to the GMAT test center without identification. This is an example of a CORRECT usage.

Summary of what you need to know about split infinitives

  • Experts agree--split infinitives are not always wrong.
  • ETS has credited answers with split infinitives in them.
  • There are some cases in which infinitives should not be split.

Any questions? Ask in the TestMagic Forum!

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