Split infinitives: Go on! Do it! There, that feels better doesn’t it?

"to go" with the word "boldly" forcing its way between them

The split infinitive causes more than its fair share of tooth gnashing and garment rending. But why? Let’s take a calm, balanced look at the rule and its history.

To boldly go where no man has gone before. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to recognise a great piece of branding when you see it. Coined in the 60s, to this day that ‘to boldly go’ strapline conjures up images of pointy-eared protagonists, low-budget hi-camp and thinly veiled allegories for the human condition.

And yet there are certain people in this world upon whom a line like that has an effect akin to fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. How come? Why that split infinitive of course.

So what’s an infinitive? Why do some people consider it such a crime to split one? And why are such individuals so patently, so unarguably, so utterly wrong?

Let’s start from the beginning. In English, an infinitive is the basic form of the verb. It’s the form that appears in a book of grammar, free of alterations conveying such information as number, person or tense. An infinitive is ‘flee’ or ‘to flee’ as opposed to ‘flees’ or ‘fled’.

Now some misguided writers find it an affront to good taste to split this infinitive and separate its ‘to’ from its ‘flee’. So, for example, the phrase ‘he had to quickly flee the scene’ is considered less elegant and correct than ‘he had to flee the scene quickly’ (ok) or ‘he had quickly to flee the scene’ (urgh).

When clunkiness is favoured in the name of correctness, something’s up – and a look at the history of the split infinitive proves that to indeed be the case (see what I did there?). For the source of this supposedly unassailable tenet? Invented a few centuries ago by a bunch of fusty old grammarians trying to apply the rules of Latin to English.

Yep, because a language long dead was considered superior to our own native tongue – and because that language only ever had one-word infinitives (Latin ‘laudare’, for example, translates as ‘to praise) and so by definition couldn’t be split – a handful of blokes in chalk-dusted gowns and mortarboards decided the same should be true of English.

Now, what if someone clever-sounding and authoritative told you French was better than English, and that therefore all nouns should be assigned either masculine or feminine status (gender to be decreed by them, of course), and accordingly preceded by ‘le’ or ‘la’ instead of ‘the’? Would you?

The only reason to avoid splitting an infinitive is if you suspect your reader (however misguidedly) still believes, for the sake of good taste and public probity, that the ridiculous pronouncements of a bunch of Cicero-loving old squares, who thought the only good language was a dead one, ought to be adhered to. In this case, particularly in a business communication, you may not want this reader to think less of you or the business on whose behalf you are writing. Although, what you think of them is entirely another matter.

Otherwise, feel free to invoke the brave spirit of those intrepid pioneers of space, time and tight nylon tops – and to boldly go where many writers have gone before.

7 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Tom Lyons says:

    God bless you, Clare. I agree wholeheartedly, and am tempted to shamelessly steal this entry for the UBS Language Guidelines. 😉 Cheers, Tom.

  2. KEB says:

    Hmm. You may be right but I am getting these little prickles up my back… the purist in me would say that the word “flee” contains “quickly” within it, like a little pre-packed bag that enables it to get away quicker.

    However, ever willing to embrace the future and all that! We’ll see.

  3. M J Maddox says:

    Hear, hear!
    Maeve from DWT

  4. Derrick says:

    I find the idea that flee “contains” quickly somewhat silly! If this were the case, we would have no need for adverbs at all. This is all a question of emphasis when it comes to split infinitives! E.g. – “To BOLDLY go” “To go BOLDLY” In the first example, you get a sense that the act of going IS bold, where in the other example you get a feeling they are going IN a bold manner!

  5. I firmly believe (yep) that some are OK but others are not. When cookbooks say finely chop some onions I feel I should put on a top hat and white gloves. Where as to chop some onions finely means into small pieces.

    To effectively do something (i.e., come up with an alternative) is quite the opposite of doing something effectively (doing it well). The same could be said of to clearly do something.

    And then there’s to hardly penetrate. I’m talking of market penetration of course.

  6. I agree with Richard Owsley. Once you decide where you want the stress to get placed, you can go right ahead and split the infinitives.

    I certainly do!

    I tend to ignore certain ‘rules’ conjured up by ‘intellectuals’, such as not beginning a sentence with ‘because’ or not ending one with a preposition.

    Know the standard rules of course, (as bad grammar is just, well, bad), but break some if you must for the creative process.

  7. Hear, hear, Richard and Lucille! When it comes down to it, it’s about getting your message across.

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