Thursday, October 25, 2007

To Boldly Split What No One Has Split Before...

Space: The final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Its continuing mission:
To explore strange, new worlds,
To seek out new life and new civilizations,
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
--Captain James T. Kirk

I confess--I'm a Star Trek fan. I have attended small-venue conventions and met cast members from all the Star Trek series except Enterprise. But you don't want to hear those stories. You want to hear what Star Trek has to do with language.

Well, it's all about the split infinitive. In my previous blog, Grammar "Policies" Masquerading as "Rules," I indicated that avoiding split infinitives is what I would consider a grammar policy, not a hard-and-fast rule. And the Star Trek prologue noted above doesn't just split an infinitive--it does so boldly.

An infinitive, simply put, is the to form of a verb: to run, to spit, to go, to get the picture. When an infinitive is split, an adverb is inserted between the to and the verb--in our Star Trek example, to boldly go is a split infinitive, with the adverb boldly inserted between the two halves of the verb to and go.

The problem is that the grammar we have such a love/hate relationship with derives from Latin, which was once thought to be THE language. Our grammarians thus tried to organize the structure of English to replicate the elegance of Latin.

But Latin does not have infinitives in the way we think of them, and therefore it was impossible to split them! Since Latin had no split infinitives, our grammarians decided that English shouldn't have them, either. As a result, avoiding split infinitives has been considered a rule by grammar purists; however, good reasons exist for using split infinitives. Don't get me wrong--I don't advocate splitting infinitives just for the sake of splitting them or splitting them unthinkingly. You should have a purpose for splitting them. Know the grammar policy before you bend it!

Acceptable reasons for splitting infinitives include
  • Emphasizing how something is done. When an infinitive is split, the emphasis rests on the word doing the splitting. In to boldly go, boldly receives the emphasis--since it is an interruptive force in the verb--but isn't that the point of the phrase? It isn't enough to go where no man has gone before--one should do it boldly!

  • Avoiding confusion. Sometimes, not splitting an infinitive leads to misplaced modifiers or other confusing problems. For example, "Joe decided to quickly move for a vote," where quickly splits the infinitive to move, means that Joe moved for the vote quickly after making the decision to do so. If we were to avoid splitting the infinitive and move the adverb quickly to a different place in the sentence, the meaning of the sentence changes. For instance, "Joe quickly decided to move for a vote" means that he made the decision quickly, but not that the motion for the vote was quick. Why avoid splitting an infinitive only to end up with a sentence that doesn't say what you mean?
One caveat: if your English instructor or your company style manual indicates that splitting infinitives should be avoided at all costs, it's smart to follow their guidance. But at least you can take secret delight in knowing that splitting infinitives is sometimes acceptable. And we can thank Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, for showing us how to boldly split them!


Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Thank goodness for Roddenberry!

(And Jean-Luc Picard can boldly go ANYWHERE with me . . . *sigh*)

Diane said...

I AM taking secret delight in knowing that spliting infinitives is sometimes acceptable. And I realize after reading your examples that I split infinitives often. (Did I use the "And" acceptably at the beginning of the sentence? - I'm still learning at 39.)

I think in creative writing, it would be almost IMPOSSIBLE to avoid splitting infinitives and still produce a colorful visual for the reader... because let's face it... "describing words" make the picture in the readers mind! So if it fits... you must split! HA HA!