Split Infinitives | Examples & Definition

Verbs updated on  February 5, 2024 3 min read

In English, an infinitive is a verb form that is the same as the base or dictionary form. A full infinitive (aka to-infinitive) is preceded by “to” (e.g., “to study,” “to run”), while a bare infinitive is not (e.g., “study,” “run”).

A split infinitive occurs when another word separates “to” from the verb in a full infinitive.

Split infinitive examples
I told him to carefully review the material.
Birth rates are expected to gradually decline.
The cat seems to really want some roast chicken.

What is a split infinitive?

Infinitives in English are verb forms that are the same as the base or dictionary form. They have many uses, including functioning as subjects, nouns, or adjectives.

Full infinitives are also known as to-infinitives because they consist of “to” followed by the base form of the verb (e.g., “to jump”). A split infinitive is a full infinitive that has words (usually adverbs) separating “to” and the verb (e.g., “to joyfully jump”).

Split infinitive examples
I’ve started taking lessons to quickly improve my German.
The researchers monitored the participants to better understand their behavior.

Note
The other type of infinitive is a bare infinitive (aka zero infinitive). This is simply the base form of the verb without “to” (e.g., “jump”) and so cannot be split.

Is it okay to split an infinitive?

Grammarians have been debating split infinitives since at least the nineteenth century. In the 1800s, many (but not all) grammarians viewed split infinitives as ungrammatical, and a lot of schools began to teach this as fact. However, split infinitives are commonly viewed as acceptable and sometimes even necessary by modern grammarians and publications.

When to avoid split infinitives

Because some people still have a negative perception of split infinitives, it’s best to avoid them in academic or professional writing as long as the meaning or clarity isn’t affected.

Even in contexts where a split infinitive is acceptable, it might not always be the best choice; sometimes the adverb will sound more natural placed elsewhere in the sentence.

Examples: When to avoid split infinitives
We need to immediately leave. [technically acceptable but sounds a little unnatural]
We need to leave immediately. [preferred]

She told him to carefully watch. [technically acceptable but sounds a little unnatural]
She told him to watch carefully. [preferred]

When to use split infinitives

In some instances, splitting the infinitive is the best option because the adverb cannot be placed anywhere else without making the sentence ungrammatical, unclear, or unnatural.

Examples: When to split an infinitive
She asked him cautiously to pass the box. [implies she is asking cautiously]
She asked him to pass cautiously the box. [unnatural]
She asked him to pass the box cautiously. [unclear whether she is asking cautiously or wants the box to be passed cautiously]
She asked him to cautiously pass the box.

A split infinitive can be the clearest, simplest, most elegant choice without completely rewriting the sentence.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


Frequently asked questions about split infinitives

What does it mean to split an infinitive?

A split infinitive is a full infinitive (e.g., “to eat”) that has words (usually adverbs) separating “to” and the verb (e.g., “to noisily eat”).

Split infinitives have traditionally been viewed as ungrammatical, but nowadays they are largely viewed as acceptable and are sometimes necessary.

For example, in “the dentist told Geoff to always brush his teeth before bed,” moving “always” either results in an awkwardly worded sentence or makes it unclear: does “always” refer to how often the dentist tells Geoff or to how often Geoff should brush his teeth?

Is a split infinitive bad grammar?

Although split infinitives were traditionally viewed as ungrammatical, they are now largely viewed as acceptable and are sometimes necessary.

You may want to avoid them where possible in academic or professional environments, as some may still view them negatively, but you don’t need to avoid them entirely. Split infinitives can provide emphasis, and moving the adverb can sometimes result in an ungrammatical or unclear sentence.

For example, in “Gemma asked Kamil to quietly shut the door,” moving “quietly” either results in an awkwardly worded sentence or makes it unclear: does “quietly” refer to the volume of Gemma’s voice or the way she wants Kamil to shut the door?



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Sophie Shores

Sophie has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Publishing, and a passion for great writing. She’s taught English overseas and has experience editing both business and academic writing.

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