Wotcha, this is the first post from your friendly Grammar Monster:
I was going to start by asking if you recognised that phrase, but of course you do. Even if you’ve no truck with all this science fiction tommyrot, you’ll be familiar with the most famous split infinitive in the history of the English language. It’s the last part of the mission statement of the USS Enterprise, as recited at the start of every episode of Star Trek: Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But what is a split infinitive? In fact, what’s an unsplit infinitive?
You’re all familiar with verbs. These are usually taught as ‘doing words’ – words that identify actions. Run. Write. Plummet. Bicker. These are all verbs. An infinitive is simply the phrase, “to <verb>”:
When you split an infinitive, you fashion another word into a sort of crude literary axe and you slap that sucker down crunch right in the middle. The axe word is usually an adverb, a word that describes how you do a verb. Examples of adverbs might be ‘quickly’, ‘feverishly’, ‘terrifyingly’ or ‘endlessly’. But in theory any sort of word can be made sharp enough and used to split an infinitive.
You’ll end up with:
To quickly run.
To feverishly write.
To terrifyingly plummet.
To endlessly bicker.
To boldly go.
And you’ve probably noticed that at least four of those sound bloody awful. Horrible, clunky phrases that cry out to be reworded. And so they are – which is one good reason why you might want to avoid splitting infinitives.
But at some point in the misty distant past, someone got hold of the idea that you can’t split infinitives in English – that there’s some sort of grammatical rule that prohibits it. And it’s not true.
The problem seems to be that, once upon a time, someone looked at infinitives in Latin, which are rather different from English ones. Latin is what’s called an ‘inflected’ language, which means that any given verb has a number of different forms depending on who’s doing the action, when they’re doing it, how many of them there are, and so on. The first verb traditionally learned in Latin is ‘love’, which is broken down (partially) like this:
Amo: I love
Amas: You (directed at one other person) love
Amat: S/he or it loves
Amamus: We love
Amatis: You (directed at many people) love
Amant: They love
Six different words identify who’s doing the loving – and that’s only here-and-now, present-tense loving:
There are further different forms for loving that’s been done, loving that’s being anticipated, loving that might have been, loving that may yet be, loving that should have been but wasn’t… and of course, there’s also the accompanying infinitive:
Amare: to love
You may have noticed that all these forms appear as a single word. The infinitive, ‘amare’ is just one word, as opposed to the English ‘to love’. This means that in Latin, you can’t split an infinitive even if you want to. Any further descriptors have to go either before or after the infinitive:
English is a non-inflected language, which means that it generally has one form of the verb, and we modify it for tenses and number and the like by bolting extra bits on.
I run; you run; they run.
Admittedly we do still modify the verb itself in some situations: ‘I run’ becomes ‘I ran’ if I’ve already done it. But we generally need at least one clarifying word to tell us who ran.
So we can split infinitives, and the Romans couldn’t, so that’s progress at least, what?
Don’t get too carried away, though. Authorities generally agree that if you’re writing formally, it’s best to avoid split infinitives if you can. As you saw above they can look awkward, and can trip the reader. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are very fussy people out there: the person to whom you’ve sent your job application, contract tender or proposal for a military alliance might remain under the impression that split infinitives are some terrible crime against language. Finding one in your text might be enough to completely put them off.
So how do you avoid them?
The United Federation of Planets could have avoided the problem by charging the Enterprise “to explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; boldly to go where no-one has gone before”. Or they could have required them “to go boldly where no-one has gone before”. And either of these would have worked – but don’t they sound just a little bit wrong to you?
Doubtless, in this example the substitutes sound wrong because we’re so familiar with the version they actually used on the programme. But that’s part of the problem: we’re all quite familiar with split infinitives. Sometimes, in fact, the process of avoiding a split infinitive can do more harm than good in terms of clarity. You must be cautious. Let’s use my split infinitive above as a further illustration:
“Finding one in your text might be enough to completely put them off.”
You can change this to:
“Finding one in your text might be enough to put them off completely.”
Which sounds okay. But if you’re not careful, you might go the other way and end up with this:
“Finding one in your text might be enough completely to put them off.”
Which is even more ungainly than the original and doesn’t really work at all.
Generally, unless you’re writing expressively, as in dialogue, or in a deliberately informal style, you should probably look to avoid split infinitives where you can – but don’t put your sentences through awkward gymnastics just for the sake of avoiding one. Your goal is always to get your thoughts across as clearly as possible, and if a split infinitive is the most effective and unobtrusive way to do that, then go to it.
Me want cookie now.