“To Boldly Go”: Splitting Infinitives and Why You Should (or Shouldn’t) Care

“To boldly go where no one has gone before!”

I’ve always been a huge Star Trek fan. Watched all the original series episodes and even the animated series over and over as a kid. Went to Trek cons as a young teen. Had a pair of Vulcan ears and a tribble.

But one thing made me grit my teeth every time the show came on.

To Boldly Split Infinitives

Every time William Shatner and later Patrick Stewart’s voice would come on for the stirring intro, I’d mutter under my breath, “‘To go boldly.’”

The split infinitive “to boldly go” offended my sensibilities. I was the son of an English teacher and a nascent grammar nerd. How could I not take umbrage?

Later, my wife and daughters would laugh at me — though both girls ended up as grammar nerds on their own. But I stuck to my guns.

Why? you ask. What’s the big deal? What’s a split infinitive and, more importantly, why should I care?

Well, the infinitive form of a verb is (believe it or not) a noun phrase made up of the word “to” followed by a verb. It’s the most basic form of any verb. “To be.” “To run.” “To cogitate.” “To go.”

Splitting an infinitive means adding words between the “to” and the verb. “To generally be.” “To carelessly if somewhat giddily — though never on Thursdays — run.”

“To boldly go.”

Why does it matter? Allow me a quick history lesson, if you don’t mind.

A Brief History of the Free-for-All That Is the English Language

Most of English grammar was made up in the 18th and 19th centuries, an attempt to impose order on a bastard language with lots of flexibility and few set rules.

Syntax (roughly put, the relationships between different parts of a sentence) was one of the few places where English was in fact somewhat consistent, so that’s where those first grammar nerds started, trying to impose Latin-like logic into the sprawling chaos that was English. Spelling? Vocabulary? Fugedaboudit. Let’s try to get the word-order thing straightened out.

English is largely uninflected. It has almost no arbitrarily gendered words (and even fewer in the past fifty years) or cases (aside from the possessive — this period is when we got the rules about when an apostrophe S should be added and when just an apostrophe sufficed). Words can change their function effortlessly, with nouns becoming verbs or adjectives becoming nouns. “He skied the ball.” “They parked on the green.” All you have to tell you what a word is doing is where it appears in a sentence — the syntax, in other words.

This flexibility is both a strength and a potential weakness. English verb conjugation is extremely simple, at least compared to most European languages. There’s little to distinguish the noun form of a word from the adjective, verb, or interjection form. Adverbs end in “-ly” — usually. Prepositions and conjunctions are few in number, and so easy to identify. Usually. Interjections stand in their own. But nouns, verbs, and adjectives? No chance. And some words get used as “helpers” in certain grammatical constructions.

So the grammarians focused on syntax, and especially on the “helper” words we use in place of inflection. Some examples of helpers are the “to” in the infinitive form of verbs, “could” in the conditional, or “to be” in participles.

The Joys of Syntax

The idea those first grammar Nazis developed is to put all helpers and modifiers as close as possible to the word they’re modifying to avoid ambiguity and confusion. The general rule with helper words is to place them immediately before the main verb, while adverbs and such get placed just before or, if need be, just after the new compound verb.

If you dump modifiers between the helper and the main verb, confusion threatens. Tossing words between the “to” and the verb make it potentially unclear what purposes the words are serving.

That’s the idea. Split infinitives pave the road to chaos and muddy language.

Splitting Infinitives — Style vs Grammar Rules

Having said all of that, I think the injunction against splitting infinitives almost certainly falls under the heading of style rather than grammatical rule. That is, it’s a matter of choice — as long as you make the choice consciously, clearly, and consistently.

Most people split infinitives and such with abandon in their everyday usage. But in more formal language, one tries to be precise, and so, as with the passive voice (for example), many writers and editors try to avoid splitting infinitives needlessly.

However, the Chicago Manual of Style (the Bible of American book publishing) decided recently to allow splitting infinitives “to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound” (CMS 5:168). So there’s that. 😉

So… I CAN Boldly Go?

As an example of what the CMS means by “natural sound”: replacing “to boldly go” with “to go boldly” in the Star Trek intro would ruin the scansion of what is essentially a lovely, ringing line of iambic pentameter (with a not-unusual anapest in the fourth foot):

To boldly go where no one has gone before!

So Star Trek captains will continue “to boldly go.” And I’ll continue to grumble. But I’ll just have to gradually (if not always graciously and certainly not gracefully) deal with it.

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