2. The infinitive’s initial particle ‘to’ is part of a homonymous set, with three words pronounced identically: to, too and two.

Complicating this situation is that one of these, ‘to’, is also a homograph: a condition in which a single spelling and pronunciation expresses disparate meanings in differing situations. One of these meanings is when ‘to’ is used as a preposition, as in “She went to the store.”

[Note: A preposition is a word used at the beginning (“pre-positioned”) of a small phrase that establishes the space-, time- or agent-relationship of its noun or pronoun (this, its ‘object’, is always required) to the rest of the larger phrase in which it appears. Thus we have “She went to the store.”, “She went into the store., “She stayed in the store for an hour by her own watch.” [Prepositions are covered in section 10 of the QCEG.]
The particle ‘to’ heading an infinitive cannot, therefore, be called a preposition because neither does it establish a space-, time- or agent-relationship, nor does it ever have a noun or pronoun object!]

The other meaning is when ‘to’ is used as the particle that forms the first subunit within an infinitive. ‘To’ in this position has no meaning of its own: it is not a preposition, but the signal-preface proclaiming that the two-unit phrase it fronts is an infinitive.

BACKGROUND: This form of the (present) infinitive goes back to Old English (before 800 CE), in which the prepositional form ‘tō’ was combined with a variant form of the verbal adjective (the present participle), used as a headless noun-form (as in the phrase, "those singing", where 'people' or such is omitted). This was itself then put into the Dative case. This “inflected infinitive” (also called the “gerundial infinitive” [Harrison and Sharp, Beowulf, note on line I., p. 174]) co-existed with the earlier, Germanic “uninflected infinitive” throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. [vide: Morgan Callaway, Jr., The Infinitive in Anglo-Saxon]
Within that era, the places in which each form was used came to be by-and-large established, with usages that have held consistent across the centuries into Modern English. As in other, modern Germanic languages, there was no actual gerund in Old English: such usage was supplied by either form of the infinitive.

[The inflected infinitive is erroneously called gerund (or gerundive) in some Old English grammars, whose authors appear to labor under the simplistic misconception that a language can have only one infinitive. It is unfortunate that those writers have been deprived of the opportunity to study Classical Greek, which has an infinitive for practically every tense, voice and mode!]

Examples of this differing, ancient usage of the two infinitive forms appear in the following:
(The table uses one of the two or more auxiliary verbs individual Germanic languages have had to use in order to recreate a specifically future tense form, one that they had early lost as a separate, unique entity. One sees here another, possible remnant of the influence exerted by Old Norse on the forms current in Old English, and preserved in later  English, and Icelandic, development.)

Modern English:

He will sing.
(infinitive root)

/hi: wɪl siŋ/

He ought to sing.
(full infinitive)

/hi: ɔ:t tu: siŋ/

Old English:

Hē wille singan.
(uninflected infinitive)
/he: wɪlɛ siŋgan/

Hē āh tō singenne.

(inflected infinitive)
/he: a:χ to: siŋgɛnnɛ/


Is wili siggwan.
/ɪs wɪlɪ siŋgwan/

Is áih siggwan.
/ɪs aιχ siŋgwan/

Old Norse:

Hann vill syngja .
/ha:n wɪl syŋja/

Hann ā at syngja.
/ha:n a: at syŋja/
(syngja originally syngwa[n])

In Other Modern Germanic Languages:


Hann mun syngja.

Hann ætti að syngja.


Han skall sjunga.

Han borde sjunga.


Han vil synge.

Han burde synge.


Er wird singen.

Er soll singen.


Hij zal zingen.

Hij moet zingen.


Despite the fact that Old English treated both the inflected and uninflected form of the infinitive as single units, modern misunderstanding has led many to think that the initial particle, ‘to’, was, and is still merely a preposition. However, this has not been true for at least some 1300 years.

During the period of Middle English [c. 1150 - 1450], the verbal units within these two forms lost their original final syllable(s) and those portions coalesced to the point of being indistinguishable from the present root—the verb form on which the present tense is based. Thus the uninflected infinitive came to be the modern single-word form, the infinitive root, used with such auxiliaries as will, shall, or must, while the inflected infinitive still appears in all other uses.

But this multiplicity of meanings—both the duplicity of the word ‘to’ as well as its homonymous variants, too and two—creates a highly ambiguous situation. This complexity requires that the listener or reader delay interpretation of any following words until the nature of that /tu:/ be fully deciphered.

The problem with split infinitives is that they delay that interpretation.

This verbal-suspension-of-understanding is learned, expected and parsed without difficulty by the speakers of German and Dutch. But it is unnecessary, labor-intensifying and therefore offensive mental Schwitzarbeit [sweat-work] to any knowledgeable speaker of English.

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

—Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

An example of this verbal-suspension would be:

“Der Knabe war unglücklich daß er hatte so schnell nach der Rückkehr Briefe über seine Ferienbesuch in Freiburg an die Großeltern schreiben müssen.”

The boy was unhappy that  he had to write his grandparents letters about his holiday visit to Freiburg so quickly after having returned. ”

Just as one would NEVER phrase this translation as “to so quickly after having returned write”, so one must also NEVER emit such a thing as “to quickly  write”!

Consider the pending, suspended decipherment of the phoneme /tu:/, as it is revealed when one cannot trust an author not to split the poor infinitive:


To boldly   ?? speak a phrase
‘to’ → split infinitive
Too boldly ??  spoken words
‘too’  an adverb modifying another adverb (boldly)

Two boldly ?? speaking persons





‘two’  a numeric adjective modifying a following noun (persons), itself preceded by a verbal phrase: the adverb + present participle (boldly speaking)

In programming terms, the first word, then the second word, must be “pushed onto the stack” and held for subsequent disambiguators. Only after having reached the third word can the “stack be popped” and, at last, the meaning of the entire phrase decoded. (Consider how much worse that delay must be whenever the emitter has actually placed an entire phrase or clause within his painfully swollen infinitive!)

Yet, by not splitting the infinitive the ambiguity is resolved at as early a point as possible, as these whole and hale infinitives demonstrate:

To speak boldly his message and his meaning…


To speak his message and his meaning boldly

or (in an even more forcefully stated phrase)

Boldly to speak his message and his meaning …

Yes, adverbs can, and often should (or even must), be placed in the positions in which they modify the entire infinitive phrase—or any other phrase that they do indeed modify!

Placing adverbs appropriately is the mark of the skillful writer, the powerful speaker, distinguishing them markedly from the less evocative, less capable one who does not tailor adverbial position to the needs, the spirit, and the effect of the message. Split infinitives never fail to destroy the effectiveness of that message!





0 #1 Ryan Bissell 2013-09-22 00:49
Thank you, I aspire to never again split an infinitive!
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