I recently received a question in class about whether it is appropriate to use split infinitives in legal writing. I then received the question: “What is a split infinitive anyway?”
An infinitive is a verb form created by putting the word “to” in front of a verb, such as:
- to file
- to argue
- to discuss
You split an infinitive* when you insert an adverb between “to” and the verb, such as
- to quickly file
- to cleverly argue
- to harshly discuss
The rule against split infinitives has been around quite a while and is embedded in many people’s brains, though it doesn’t appear in Strunk & White or any other writing guide that I know.
Should you ever split an infinitive? To make a long answer short: it depends, but generally no. Because most readers get hung up on split infinitives, it is generally best to avoid them, especially if you are writing a brief, a cover letter to an employer, or a similar document where you want to leave the best impression.
Even if you intentionally split an infinitive, the reader won’t necessarily know that. And if the reader is one of those people who is bothered by split infinitives, the reader will be too fixated on the split infinitive to focus on the substance of your document.
However, sometimes a sentence only has the meaning you want it to have if you split the infinitive. For example, consider the differences in these two sentences:
- The lawyer decided to quickly call the partner before filing the brief.
- The lawyer decided to call the partner quickly before filing the brief.
The first sentence suggests the lawyer was in a rush to call the partner about the brief. The second suggests the lawyer was hoping for a quick call with the partner about the brief. If there is no way to rewrite a sentence without a split infinitive, split the infinitive. Otherwise, rewrite it. Remember, always strive for clarity.
*Arguably, the most famous split infinitive comes from Star Trek: To Boldly Go