To Boldly Split Infinitives

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before!

Star Trek, 1966–1969

With these words a new era in science-fiction was launched, and the mission not only of the Enterprise but of an entire franchise was declared.

But these words also irritated an awful lot of grammar purists.

“To boldly go?” they objected. “That’s a split infinitive. That’s bad grammar!”

But why? What is so wrong with saying to boldly go? To understand that, you have to understand something about the history of English.

Clamoring after Respectability

English has always had something of an inferiority complex. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, English (or then the language of the Anglo-Saxons) was supplanted by Norman French, which became the language of government, literature, law, and art. Even throughout the Medieval Era when Middle English was making something of a comeback, English still lacked the prestige and authority of French and Latin.

In seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some scholars began to argue that the way to give the English language respectability was to make sure that its wording conformed to the rules of grammar—of Latin grammar.

And so, we began to see rules emerge that sought to make English’s grammar more like that of Latin. And as these rules began to emerge, the split infinitive was among the first to be banned.

Splitting the Unsplittable

An infinitive is a form of the verb that is not finite, that is, not limited by tense, number, voice, aspect, mood, or any other feature of a verb. For example, in the sentence She writes, “writes” is a finite form: it is third person singular, present active indicative. But to write is none of those things—it has no person, no tense, no voice, and no mood. It simply describes the action of writing without limitation: infinite.

Thus, a split infinitive is an infinitive in which the two parts of the infinitive are split, usually by an adverb: to quickly write.

These eighteenth century grammarians argued that splitting an infinitive was improper; after all, Latin did not split its infinitives. They were right: Latin did not split its infinitives and for very good reason—Latin infinitives are one word.

The Latin infinitive of write is scribere. This word presents no opportunity for splitting. Even if I wanted to split scribere with the adverb cito (“quickly”), where would I put it? Scri-cito-bere? Scribe-cito-re? It’s simply not possible.

But splitting infinitives is possible in English because those two parts of the infinitive to and write are separable. Look how easy it is to say to quickly write.

The Arguments

There are some who admit that nothing prevents you from splitting an English infinitive. Still, they argue, you ought not do it; it’s inelegant and in bad style.

As I have pointed out on this blog, there certainly are differences between rules of grammar and rules of style, and there are some constructions that ought to be avoided even when they’re grammatically permissible. I’m not convinced that split infinitives are one of those constructions.

As always, clarity is the rule that governs, and there are times when clarity demands a split infinitive. Consider the following sentence:

  • I want to frequently write at school.

My grammar checker has already underlined “frequently write” and suggested I replace it with “write frequently.” But should I? Let’s see what happens:

  • I want to write frequently at school.

This is the “correct” version, but look at what has happened: an ambiguity has been introduced—is frequently modifying write or at school? Is this saying that my desire to write is experienced frequently at school (as opposed to when I’m home and feel the desire less often) or is it saying that I have a desire, while I happen to be in school, to write frequently (as opposed to doing something else frequently)? It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a real one.

The same thing happens if we move the adverb before the infinitive:

  • I want frequently to write at school.

Now, it’s unclear whether it’s the writing that’s frequent or the wanting. The use of a split infinitive can clear up this ambiguity: I want to frequently write at school.

Some may argue that you should still avoid this construction, even if it means writing a wordier sentence: When I am at school, I want to write frequently.

So, is it okay to intentionally split infinitives? Or should we, for the sake of style and elegance, forsake our Anglo-Saxon linguistic roots and conform to good Latinate style? The answer is: yes.

As is the case whenever you write, knowing your audience and aiming for clarity is vitally important. If your audience is likely to be distracted by a split infinitive, then, by all means, forsake it if the meaning is not affected. And if your audience is one that is likely to embrace non-formal English usage, then feel free to confidently split those infinitives, especially when clarity demands it.

The Power of Our Writing

But it’s worth pointing out that there’s more than just clarity at stake. Something often overlooked in this conversation is whether your writing has power. Because if we were to follow the rules of the eighteenth-century grammarians, the Starship Enterprise‘s trek through the stars would not be quite so adventurous:

  • …to seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly to go where no man has gone before.
  • …to seek out new life and new civilizations, to go boldly where no man has gone before.

Say what you will about Gene Roddenberry’s prose, but, rule or no rule, his choice to split the infinitive here was the right one: the call to boldly go is a powerful one. And this choice of phrasing has inspired generations of fans to look to the stars in hope and wonder.