To boldly go where no man has gone before

Normally, when I do these Grammar 101 posts, the rules are pretty well set in stone and there is no second thinking about it. For example, it is very clear whether you should use there, their, or they’re in each particular sentence. This black-and-white approach to writing doesn’t really apply to today’s scenario.

The infinitive form of a verb serves as the basis on which that verb can be conjugated to fit different subjects and tenses. In English, the infinitive usually takes on teh form of “to” something. For example, the infinitive version of “go” is “to go.” Similarly, other infinitives would be to run, to play, and to work. That sounds simple enough, but the picture gets muddled when you introduced split infinitives.

A split infinitive is when you insert a word, typically an adverb, in between the “to” and the verb in the infinitive form of a verb. One of the most famous examples of this is the Star Trek quote from above: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Is this grammatically acceptable?

Traditional View of Split Infinitives

If you were to adhere to the traditional or conventional school of thought, then you would be told that it is never acceptable to split infinitives. You can interrupt subject-verb pairs when you about it the right way, but it would never be correct to split the infinitive form of a verb.

So, how would you go about fixing the Star Trek quote? You have two options:

  • Boldly to go where no man has gone before
  • To go boldly where no man has gone before

Both are equally correct and both adhere to traditional conventions.

Evolving the Language

The English language is not a static entity. Twenty years ago, everyone would have given you a strange look if you said that you were going to “Google” something, but that’s a perfectly accepted statement today. Similarly, while I have an issue with I could care less, other people feel that its ironic meaning make it even more effective. Language changes and language evolves.

In like manner, our approach to split infinitives is changing as well. Traditionally, it is not acceptable to split an infinitive, but many people do it today without batting an eye. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, since that Star Trek quote came from decades ago. The evolution began long ago and the language continues to change with the times.

Using the Excuse of Style and Expression

I’ll be the first to admit that I have used the split infinitive structure on more than one occasion. It’s important to have good grammar, but as a freelance writer, I also recognize the importance of finding a unique voice. One of the bigger reasons why I choose to use the split infinitive from time to time is simply because it sounds better. It can also provide better flow and minimize ambiguity.

For example:

  • To better facilitate discussion, let’s hold the meeting at my office.
  • To facilitate better discussion, let’s hold the meeting at my office.

The meaning of the first sentence is clear. With the second sentence, it almost sounds like “better” is modifying “discussion” rather than “facilitate.” These are similar but different meanings; the split infinitive version is clearer for me.

What’s your take? Do split infinitives bother you?