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May 12, 2024

What’s a Split Infinitive? Definition + When to Avoid It

What’s a Split Infinitive? Definition + When to Avoid It

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Split infinitives happen when you place a word, usually an adverb (such as “softly” or “loudly”) between “to” and a verb (such as “sing”). 

They’re the topic of heated debates among writers, editors, and grammarians. Some argue split infinitives are a faux pas you should avoid at all costs. Others consider them a harmless construction that reflects natural speech and adds clarity and emphasis to writing.

My career as an editor has taught me the truth is somewhere in the middle. I’ve fixed split infinitives as often as I’ve explained to writers why splitting infinitives is sometimes okay.

In this guide, I break down what split infinitives are, when you should and shouldn’t use them in your writing, and how to fix them.

Defining infinitives and split infinitives

To understand what split infinitives are, you first need to know what infinitives are.

Infinitives are the base form of a verb, usually preceded by “to.” For example:

to think 

to laugh

to sleep

Split infinitives happen when an adverb or other word is placed between “to” and the verb. For example:

to carefully think

to loudly laugh

to soundly sleep

In a sentence, split infinitives look like this:

"Frederika created a presentation to easily win the client."

"We’d waited all day to finally explore the museum." 

"She planned to quietly work in the library."

To split, or not to split?

Grammarians are split (no pun intended 😉) on whether to avoid splitting infinitives.

On one side are those who still follow traditional grammar rules, which discourage using split infinitives because they can sometimes make sentences harder to read

On the other side are modern linguists, who point out that split infinitives are common in everyday speech (especially in American English) and can actually make sentences clearer and more memorable. 

Even the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage have weighed in, arguing that “split infinitive” is a misnomer since “to” isn’t technically part of the infinitive verb. 

With this in mind, let’s explore when you typically should and shouldn’t split infinitives in your writing.

When to avoid split infinitives

Here are a few scenarios where you might want to avoid the split:

1. You’re working with a style guide that forbids split infinitives

Certain academic environments and professional publications adhere to style guides like APA or Chicago, which traditionally discourage split infinitives. In these cases, it’s important not to break the rules.

Pro tip: Many style guides have updated their rules to reflect contemporary usage of split infinitives, so always check the latest edition.

2. You’re doing formal or academic writing

Avoiding split infinitives in these types of writing — e.g., legal documents, traditional literary analyses, academic papers, etc. — can help you maintain the serious, formal tone they demand.

3. You need to prevent ambiguity

Sometimes, the placement of an adverb can make it unclear which action it’s modifying. 

Look at this example sentence: 

“Gena decided to eventually postpone the dinner party.”

Did Gena take time to make this decision (option 1), or will she act on it sometime in the future (option 2)?

Either of these two rewrites would be clearer, depending on which action you want to modify:

  • Option 1: “Gena eventually decided to postpone the dinner party.”
  • Option 2: “Gena decided to postpone the dinner party eventually.”

4. Your sentence includes multiple adverbs

When a sentence has many adverbs, it’s better not to split the infinitive because it can make the sentence tough to read. Instead, put the adverbs before or after the infinitive.

For example:

“PJ aimed to boldly, confidently, and proudly speak at the presentation.” 
“PJ aimed to speak boldly, confidently, and proudly at the presentation.”

How to fix split infinitives

An easy way to correct a split infinitive is to move the adverb before “to” or after the verb

Here’s a chart of before-and-after examples so you can see these fixes in action:

Another way to fix split infinitives is to replace the adverb-verb pair in a split infinitive with a stronger verb

For example, you could swap “to quietly say” with “to whisper.” They mean the same thing, but one avoids splitting the infinitive.

Below is a chart of split infinitive examples and the strong verb constructions you can exchange them for:

When you can use split infinitives

Split infinitives sometimes offer the most effective way to convey your meaning or achieve a certain goal with your writing. You might use them when:

1. The adverb would be out of place if moved

Take this sentence as an example: 

“I felt it was best to really think it through before deciding.” 

Changing it to “I felt it was best to think really it through before deciding” scrambles the sentence structure.

Adjusting it to “I felt it was best really to think it through before deciding” disrupts the flow.

2. You want to highlight a certain action

Consider this example: 

“The team has to regularly evaluate updated guidelines.”

Moving “regularly” to after the verb would change the sentence’s meaning. “The team has to evaluate regularly updated guidelines” suggests the guidelines are frequently updated, not that the team evaluates them often. 

Placing “regularly” before “has to” would also alter the meaning. “The team regularly has to evaluate updated guidelines” shifts focus from the evaluation process to the team’s responsibilities.

3. You’re aiming for stylistic effect

Sometimes, split infinitives simply make a sentence sound better. For example, “I promise to always love you” has a greater impact than “I promise always to love you.”

4. You’re mirroring natural speech

For instance, writing “I need to quickly stop by the store” mirrors how people would typically express this thought in everyday conversation. Keeping the split infinitive, in this case, can make your writing feel more natural and authentic.


Split infinitives can be tricky to wrap your head around, but with this guide, you have all the information you need to use them correctly in your writing. 

Remember that a split infinitive simply means an adverb or other word has been placed between “to” and a verb — and you don’t necessarily need to correct it. 

You might use a split infinitive to emphasize a particular action, reflect real-life speech, or add flair to your sentence. Conversely, you should avoid splitting infinitives in formal or academic writing, if moving the adverb would create ambiguity, or when your sentence includes multiple adverbs.

For more information on writing well, check out our articles on improving your vocabulary and writing concisely and effectively.


What is the most famous split infinitive?

One of the most famous split infinitives is a phrase in the opening sequence of Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Why are split infinitives bad?

Split infinitives aren’t inherently “bad.” People debate them because of traditional grammar rules, which encourage moving adverbs before “to” or after the verb to unsplit the infinitive. However, split infinitives are common in everyday speech and can even help make your sentences easier to understand and more impactful.