Writing for Business

Oct 5 2012   10:55AM GMT

Splitting infinitives and changing rules

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is preferable?
1. To reduce its vulnerability, the government planned to gradually reduce its number of Internet connections.
2. To reduce its vulnerability, the government planned to reduce its number of Internet connections gradually.

Answer: 1.

“To reduce” is what is known as an infinitive. The old rule is that you don’t split infinitives, but even when that was the rule, there were exceptions. Quite often, refusing to split an infinitive results in an awkward sentence. Even worse, keeping your infinitives glued together can also make your meaning unclear.

In this case, if we place “gradually” at the end of the sentence, it makes it seem as if reducing the number of connections gradually is what reduces vulnerability. But the gradual nature of the reduction has nothing to do with the purpose — it’s just the manner in which the action is being performed. Sentence #1 is more apt to be understood properly: The government is reducing Internet connections to reduce vulnerability but will do so in a gradual manner.

Here’s Oxford Dictionaries on the (non-)issue of split infinitives:

What are split infinitives? 

 Split infinitives happen when you put an adverb between to and a verb, for example:
She used to secretly admire him.
You have to really watch him.

What’s wrong with split infinitives?

 Some people believe that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided at all costs. They would rewrite these sentences as:
She used secretly to admire him.

You really have to watch him.
But there’s no real justification for their objection, which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin. People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what’s being said. The sentence:
You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]
doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:
You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

You see? Sometimes infinitives should stick together; sometimes it’s better to split them up. Make the sensible choice and don’t let outdated rules trip you up. If your English teacher taught you otherwise … well, your English teacher was wrong.

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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