The Split Infinitive

The Split Infinitive-010422-edited.pngIt was in 1966 that William Shatner as Captain Kirk first declared that the mission of the Starship Enterprise was “to boldly go” where no man had gone before. And when he said it, you could practically hear the collective gasp of persnickety grammarians the world over. The trouble was that the mission statement violates what is actually a dubious rule – the rule against splitting infinitives.

An infinitive is the basic form or name of a verb. In English, it is always made with the word “to.” So “to sing,” “to jump,” “to feel,” and “to talk” are all examples of infinitives.  And because every English infinitive is made up of at least two words, then it’s possible to split them – to put another word between the “to” and the base verb. In this case, Captain Kirk inserted the word “boldly” between “to” and “go.”

The rule only came into being in the 19th century when English scholars began to write formal grammars of English. They based their thinking on Latin grammar. And because Latin infinitives are just one word long – eg. “amare” (to love) or “ducere” (to lead) – the grammarians decreed that English infinitives should not be split.

And so in the case of Captain Kirk, grammarians would have preferred that he say either “to go boldly,” or, in a pinch, “boldly to go.” Most listeners would say those phrasings weren’t as forceful or rhythmic or dynamic. And so they’d be prepared to violate the rule. And I’d be with them one hundred percent.

On the other hand, the rule against split infinitives actually has some value. Most of the time, it’s not at all necessary to make the split. Moreover, some splits sound downright awkward or pompous. So go ahead and deliberately split an infinitive if you want – but only if you can argue that the split is worth the effect.


You Be the Judge:

The following sentences all contain split infinitives. Decide whether each split is worth the effect. Then compare your reactions with those of someone else.

    1. The boss said I had to quickly finish the audit.
    2. I really want to fully understand this concept.
    3. She was impatient to finally leave home.
    4. My parents told me to always think about others before myself.
    5. He decided to completely re-write his first draft.
    6. Gregory expected to more than double the store’s profits.
    7. She promised to always be there for us.
    8. I had intended to fully refund the stolen money.  
    9. The generals wanted to suddenly strike
    10. The teacher asked us to just sit down and keep quiet.

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