Failing adequately

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The prohibition against placing an adverb between "to" and a following verb was once one of the most widespread Zombie Rules in English — here's Wikipedia on the history of the "Split infinitive" controversy. As Geoff Pullum wrote in 2018, the zombies have recently been losing: "At last, a split infinitive in The Economist"; "Infinitives Can Be Split: Grammar Conservatives Face the Shock". And the (related, but even stupider) "split verb rule" infection has never spread very widely.

Still, stubborn anti-split survivors sometimes rise up to threaten the brains of innocent readers, and internet hyperlinks can give them an extra edge. Here's an example from Rafael Behr, "More austerity, more division, more decline: Sunak is merely a sequel in a tired Tory franchise", The Guardian 11/2/2022:

Braverman has failed adequately to explain the serial breaches of information security that got her sacked a fortnight ago.

Google News finds us plenty of other examples of failing adequately, though I haven't found any others where the adequacy of the failure is underlined by a hyperlink:

[link] he failed adequately to register broad public concerns
[link] the court concluded that relators failed adequately to plead scienter
[link] the school failed adequately to develop its defense
… etc. …

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t Bob Ladd]

Update — following Jenny Chu's observation in the comments, we should note that "failing successfully" is also Out There, e.g.

[link] Evidence is presented which suggests that medical education has failed successfully to integrate medically relevant behavioral science research findings into medical school curricula
[link] Unfortunately for France, Suffren failed successfully to implement his tics in any of his six major naval engagements
[link] In this case, Frankfurt agrees that Smith is not morally responsible for failing to call the police (i.e., failing successfully to reach the police).
[link] The municipal governing body shall revoke that license if the applicant fails successfully to complete the course in which he or she enrolls.



  1. Jenny Chu said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 5:13 am

    This brings to mind the popular meme "TASK FAILED SUCCESSFULLY" – making me wonder what the difference might be between failing adequately and failing successfully.

  2. Gav said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 5:22 am

    Echoes of "try again, fail again, fail better".

  3. Cheryl Thornett said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 6:05 am

    It would be so easy to recast 'failed adequately to explain' as 'failed to explain adequately'. But perhaps that wouldn't shout 'look, I'm not splitting an infinitive' loudly enough for journalese. (My apologies to the many journalists who have a better grasp of where to put adverbs.)

  4. Craig said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 7:25 am

    The rule against split infinitives is silly, but I don't see a problem with NOT splitting the infinitive. Something like "adequately to explain" can seem a bit clunky, but there's nothing wrong with it.

  5. Cervantes said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    But but but . . "failed to explain adequately" is not a split infinitive, is perfectly natural, and maybe even better than "failed to adequately explain.". So why create this "failed adequately" ugliness anyway, even if you are hung up on the split infinitive pedantry? (If Spanish is any guide, the former is more like Latin as well.) I also always thought "to go boldly" would have been better than "boldly to go," not that there's anything wrong with that.

  6. Stan Carey said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 8:02 am

    A few related examples from my files:

    Anthony Burgess, in Here Comes Everybody, reprimands critics of Finnegans Wake for "failing totally to appreciate" what it's trying to do.

    Mary Flanagan, in her short story "Mrs Tiggywinkle Goes to Town", from The Blue Woman, refers to "a stony-hearted prat in a suit who failed entirely to appreciate his wife".

    J.N. Williamson's essay "Reality Function", in Monsters in Our Midst (ed. Robert Bloch), writes that people today "failed entirely to grasp the purpose of education."

    In each case it's unclear – at least outside of context – whether the intended sense is total/entire failure or mere partial failure (failing to totally appreciate; failed to entirely appreciate; failed to entirely grasp). I've collected dozens of these, and it's the ambiguous ones that frustrate; the absurd ones have the excuse of being obvious. Stupid zombie rule.

  7. tony prost said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 8:39 am

    I also always thought "to go boldly" would have been better than "boldly to go,"…."to boldly go" scans better than the alternatives, rhetorically. The accent is better placed, as a pair of iambs.

  8. Matt said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 3:21 pm

    @Stan Carey
    I am curious to know how you and others interpret the variations of your example sentences.

    To my ears:

    – “failed to entirely grasp the purpose of education”

    suggests partial failure, where a person understood some of, but not the entire, purpose of education.


    – “failed entirely to grasp the purpose of education”

    can only mean total failure, where the person completely failed to understand any part of the purpose of education whatsoever.

    But that may be because the avoidance of the split infinitive is so unnatural in that sentence that it would not even occur to me that this is what the author is doing, and so the only attachment for “entirely” is the previous verb “failed”.

    Effectively, for me it is identical to:
    – “entirely failed to grasp the purpose of education”

    I don’t think I am conditioned to read the author’s original word order as an alternative phrasing to the split infinitive at all, and so I struggle to read it that way even following this discussion.

    I would actually find the sentence more ambiguous than either when you move away from the adverb altogether:

    – “failed to grasp the entire purpose of education”

    That, to me, could be interpreted in either way and is impossible to decipher without further context (it is pretty much a 50/50 call for me).

    In contrast to all of this, the post’s original example:

    – “has failed adequately to explain”

    is impossible to interpret and is straight up ungrammatical.

    I think it must be because my brain rejects “adequately” as an adverb for “fail”.

    I don’t think I would describe “has adequately failed to explain” as ungrammatical, but I would describe it as complete and utter nonsense.

    And what makes it all weird, as other commenters have noted, is that the perfectly reasonable “has failed to explain adequately” is freely available and perfectly readable (albeit, a lesser choice than the split infinitive).


  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 3:48 pm

    It certainly is interesting (I won't agree that it's "weird," because I have low expectations for peevers and taboo-enforcers) that the authority figures who convince some writers to avoid split infinitives at all costs do not appear to have successfully taught the same writers that there are always at least two ways to avoid the split and one will often be less awkward/ambiguous than the other.

  10. Wastrel said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 5:38 pm

    I'm not sure what the problem here is. Different people speak differently, and they often write differently from how they speak – placing an adverb before an infinitive is something with a long, established history in writing (and to a lesser extent in speech). The fact that it's not the default word order is what makes it sound elegant and poetic; of course, poetic writing can easily be overdone and become pretentious or ostentatious, but a single instance of a preposed adverb is hardly that! What's wrong with someone writing the way they are used to reading?

    Of course it's prescriptivist nonsense to pretend people should never split an infinitive. But it's also prescriptivist nonsense to pretend people should never NOT split an infinitive.

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    November 3, 2022 @ 6:13 pm

    I don;t think anynoe has said or would say that one should 'never not split an infinitive', which would be absurd indeed. I have posted about this before, complaining, in agreement with J.W Brewer above, that the better place for the adverb, if not inside the infinitive, is almost always after it.

    However, in this example, I didn't even notice, perhaps because there's no ambiguity: 'adequately' can't possibly modify 'failed', so it must modify 'explain'. – and yes, that word order's not-rare appearance in writing may play a role. It's completely wrong in speech, though. Note that in "failed to grasp the entire purpose of education", one would stress entire in the partial-failure reading but purpose in the complete-failure one. The same applies to "failed to entirely grasp" or (not as good in this case) "failed to grasp entirely", but in "failed entirely to grasp", just like "entirely failed …", stressing entirely would only emphasise more the complete failure, and I don't know how to definitely indicate the other with that order (even setting the adverb off by pauses would not work).

    In the prototypical example, the choice (therefore) is really between 'to boldly go' and 'to go boldly', with 'boldly to go' being entirely unidiomatic. Tony Prost is probably right that the split infinitive won because of its iambic rhythm; apart from that I think I'd find it a trifle inferior.

    k_over_hbarc at

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 8:46 am

    Like Matt, I don’t see that the failed totally/entirely examples are ambiguous; the natural interpretation is that it was the failure that was total.
    I actually think the original statement would be better worded as “Braverman failed totally to explain …”, which would be unambiguous and perhaps more accurate.

  13. Rodger C said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 9:59 am

    Surely the way to avoid ambiguity is to use either "totally failed to explain" or "failed to explain totally"?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 12:39 pm

    In my idiolect at least, one cannot "fail to explain totally".

  15. Matt said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 4:24 pm

    Wastrel: “placing an adverb before an infinitive is something with a long, established history in writing”

    Andrew: “that word order's not-rare appearance in writing may play a role”

    I wonder if there is either a generational, nationality, or occupation/industry influence going on here.

    As a mid-30s Australian, I am pretty confident that I have never seen adverb-at-the-front word order in any writing *in the wild* – I have only encountered that style in pedantic, prescriptivist grammar books or when cited on language log.

    Perhaps there are more natural sounding examples I have overlooked, but to me, any time the adverb is placed at the front it is highly marked and exceedingly unusual, to the point it is borderline ungrammatical.

    Is this a style that is much more common in the UK or US, or was it much more common pre-1990s than it is today?

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 11:54 am

    Philip Taylor:

    There 'completely' or 'fully' would be much better than 'totally' Surely 'fail to explain completely' or 'fail to explain fully' is OK?

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 3:06 pm

    Yes, happy with both of those alternatives, Andrew, just not with "totally". Of the three, only "completely" seems valid to me in both locations, but with different semantics — "he completely failed to explain" -> "he failed to offer any explanation"; "he failed to explain completely" -> "he attempted an explanation but it did not prove entirely satisfactory".

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