Modifying infinitives

Generally, we expect adverbs and adjectives to immediately precede the word that they modify. But what about infinitives? If you shouldn’t split an infinitive, how can you qualify infinitives? One answer is to make the adverb postpositive, as did James Cromwell, playing Zephram Cochrane: “This engine will allow us to go boldly where no man has gone before.” (ENT 1.01, “Broken Bow”). But the better approach, as always, is “What Would Kirk Do?” William Shatner’s Kirk paraphrased Cochrane in the TOS opening monologue: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” And he may certainly do so! Last year, I pointed out that the “grammar myth that one must not split an infinitive … is a petrified exaggeration of a helpful rule of thumb…. Effective writers should treat the myth with a pinch of salt, always considering its guidance (and being aware of syntax in the first place), hewing to it when it produces clearer, punchier prose, and ignoring it when it doesn’t.” (2011 Usage tips #4, collected here.)

While splitting the infinitive or making the adverb postpositive are both reasonable solutions to avoid the trap (and both of them appropriate in different situations depending on where one wishes to place rhetorical stress: Cochrane, the engineer, stressed the boldness of the venture, but Kirk, the adventurer, stressed going), the one solution that you should never use is to place the adjective before the entire infinitive. A recent letter from his excellency Archbishop John Myers furnishes an example. He writes: “I urge those not in communion with the Church regarding her teaching on marriage and family (or any other grave matter of faith) sincerely to re-examine their consciences….” That feels really awkward, doesn’t it? And you’ll see why your brain trips over the syntax if we boil it down: “I urge you sincerely to re-examine your conscience.” That’s just not good English; the word order trips up the reader, and the additional clauses only make the problem more acute. Either of the two solutions already mentioned are better: “I urge you to re-examine your conscience sincerely” (better, but not great) or “I urge you to sincerely re-examine your conscience” (best).

Remember, as I stressed last year, the judge of every rule in written English is clarity. You ought to know the rules: They will help you write clearer prose. And you ought to follow them, too—unless mechanical application of a rule produces prose that is mushier, denser, foggier, and less clear than that which you could achieve by ignoring the rule.