Our Mission: To Boldly Explore Infinitives

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you’ve witnessed a controversy.

No, I’m not talking about Captain Kirk’s excessively tight shirt, or the show’s moral and environmental subtext. I’m talking about a grammar controversy, and it happens right in the title sequence, when we’re told that the Enterprise’s mission is, in part, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

That phrase — “to boldly go” — is a split infinitive, and it’s been making English teachers around the world cringe for decades.

An infinitive is a two-part form of a verb, like to be, to go, to read, to jump, etc.

A split infinitive is when you insert an adverb or adjective between the “to” and the verb–for example, to eagerly shop, to quickly scan, to slowly realize, to casually ask–or, in the case of our example–to boldly go.

This split construction makes some editors and readers nuts. As a writer, don’t be surprised if you get your copy back with that phrase circled and rephrased.

But here’s the thing: it’s not grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive. Some people don’t like it, but technically, it’s perfectly legit to split.

That’s right, we’ve stumbled upon another example of a false grammar rule. It’s one of those old grammar myths that editors and English teachers have been perpetuating for generations, but isn’t actually true.

The idea of avoiding split infinitives was put forth by a grammarian in the late 1800s, but was never fully adopted, and you won’t find this rule in any dictionary or grammar guide today. On the contrary, even the persnickety Strunk and White says it’s okay to split an infinitive as needed–such as when it’s clearer or sounds better.

For instance, academics often use the phrase “to better understand.” It actually makes more sense than the alternative–“to understand better” and it’s cleaner than having to add in a noun “to understand their subjects better.”

Still, sometimes it is cleaner to avoid the split infinitive. And so many people hate that construction that it may be a good idea to avoid it except when it makes sense for clarity.

But if your writing Anchorcalls for a split, then I encourage you: Boldly go where many have gone before, and split to your heart’s content.

Captain Kirk would be proud.

Posted in The Merry Grammarian