The Writing Room: Splitting the Infinitive — How to Boldy Go There

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I didn’t know — did you? — that until the 19th century it was perfectly okay for writers of English to judiciously split the occasional infinitive.

c 2009 B.F. Newhall

Photo by BF Newhall

For decades now, nitpickers and pedants have been taking exception to that stirring old Star Trek slogan, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

It splits its infinitive so shamelessly — to boldly go. Ouch.

But Wheaton College’s rhetorician and professor of English, Michael D.C. Drout feels no pain when he hears the familiar Star Trek slogan. He argues that that the Star Trek writers knew exactly what they were doing when they plopped the “boldly” down right between the “to” and the “go.” They wanted to send  goosebumps of anticipation up and down the spines of Star Trek fans tuning in to the show — and they did

(Drout and I are not so happy with the  sexist “no man” part of the phrase. But it’s the product of another — albeit not so distant —  era, and thus a conversation for another day.)

Drout points out that reworking the Star Trek motto to satisfy the pedants takes all the steam out of the phrase. “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” is clumsy and pretentious. And “To go boldly where no man has gone before” is lame.

I agree with Drout. Boldly belongs right where it is, in the middle of things, giving some omph to the rather pedestrian verb “to go.”

I often find myself splitting an infinitive or two here or there, defying what I thought was a venerable rule of English usage — but I always feel some trepidation when I do. Oops, I’ve split an infinitive again.

What I didn’t know, and what I’ve just now learned from Prof. Drout while working out on the elliptical machine at the gym and listening to his Modern Scholar lecture series, A Way with Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion — what I didn’t know was that English infinitives are made for splitting.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, Drout says,  that some prescriptive grammarians, believing that English should be more like Latin, banished the split infinitive from respectable discourse.

In Latin, they reasoned, infinitives are a single word. Currere is to run. Vincere is to conquer. No way to split those words up with a well chosen adverb, and so the rule was applied — needlessly — to English.

Thanks for the tip, Prof. Drout. From now on, I’m going to boldly go where those awesome Star Trek writers have been going all these years.

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