The Death of the Death of the Split Infinitive

Posted by: on Aug 3, 2015 | 4 Comments

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, holding the skull of Yorrick

William Shatner fired off a broadside against the English language in 1966, proclaiming his quest “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, but no one really noticed. Star Trek was just a clunky TV show about phasers and warp drives, and the split infinitive – wedging “boldly” between “to” and “go” – was the least of its problems.

Only the clunky show went on to become a classic, and the proscription against split infinitives officially kicked the bucket when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987.

It’s Patrick Stewart who killed it, repeating Shatner’s words in that beautiful accent of his. His elegant, Shakespearean diction lent respectability to split infinitives, as if The Bard himself gave permission. The proscription became embarrassing reminder of our benighted past, when women couldn’t vote and gay people couldn’t marry. What’s the big deal, bro? It’s all good.

Only it’s not all good, and figuring out why gets the root of what makes the English language tick.

The official reason is pretty stupid, actually. Infinitives are two words in English – “to run”, “to hold”, but they’re a single word in Latin – “currere”, “tenere”. And so, the argument goes, infinitives are an indivisible unit of grammar. Jamming “boldly” between “to” and “go” is like cramming a nugget of raw chicken liver into a chocolate truffle.

That’s what I was told back in the eighth grade. And if I believed it, I’d be all too happy to split infinitives, but it’s not the right reason. Split infinitives aren’t bad because of Latin, they’re bad because they dilute the clarity and power of writing. “To be or not to be”, for instance, becomes “to be or to not be”. Hamlet becomes Spamlet. And the words inserted into an infinitive are almost always junk.

Take this odious sentence I came across earlier this morning, from Yahoo Finance: “Still, while falling below $30 would represent a big milestone, some investors say the stock would need to fall still further for the company to truly become a takeover target.”

Purging “truly” improves the quality of the sentence, but it’s just the beginning. “Still” is used twice when it shouldn’t be there at all, and “big” is redundant because any milestone, by definition, is “big”.

Every phrase of the article contains similar crimes, including the title. And that, to me, is what’s most offensive about split infinitives – it’s a sign of laziness, the author screaming out “I don’t care about writing”.

And yet, I can’t deny the power of “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. For some reason, this phrase – like the original Star Trek – works. Despite itself, it works. Remove or reposition “boldly” and the words lose their effectiveness. There’s no rule of grammar or style so severe that it shouldn’t be broken once and a while, and that’s what makes great writing so powerful and mysterious.

4 Comments

  1. Richard Fritzson
    August 3, 2015

    “There’s no rule of grammar or style so severe that it shouldn’t be broken once and a while”

    So, is using “and a while” instead of “in a while” an example of breaking a rule of style? Or is it an example of “If it sounds good, do it.” ?

    Just curious. 🙂

  2. Arvid
    August 3, 2015

    Hah hah! Or is it me, not having an editor? YOU decide! I realize I opened myself up to all the grammarians prowling around out there, licking their chops… but have at ye. 🙂

  3. Mia
    September 30, 2015

    Well, now you’ve got me remembering how much I enoeyjd James Kilpatrick’s column in the Rocky. I don’t read any sports columns, and if he went yard is an example of what passes for writing there, so much the better. Regrettably, improper usage seems to be a positive feedback mechanism. I recall Kilpatrick’s admonition that to be a good writer, one should engage in reading. But I find that as I encounter more examples of bad writing, some of the offenses are creeping into my own. Fortunately, I catch most of them before they go public (or at least I hope I do I could very well be slipping more than I realize). In particular, I’ve noticed I type improper apostrophes more now than I used to (which was almost never), and I blame that on simply seeing them far too frequently.I think a good deal of the problem, apart from a lack of Mrs. Wellingtons in the educational experience, is the tempo of publication these days. Or, at least in the media where I notice most of this stuff, i.e. on the web. I’ve seen glaring errors in AP stories, on CNN, and in the Rocky, to name a few. It makes me wonder if the desire to get news out quickly has claimed proofreading as a casualty, for certainly some of the errors I’ve encountered shouldn’t have survived even a 2nd reading the the writers themselves.Speaking of apostrophes, would you use one in the contraction of the plural of semi-trailer , when it isn’t a possessive?

  4. Arvid
    January 20, 2016

    Do you have a link for that Kilpatrick column from the Rocky? And I think you’re absolutely right – the prevalence of bad writing is a consequence of the tempo of publication. Spewing, spewing, spewing out as many words as possible in the shortest possible time. Writing not as writing, but as “content”, as if it were filling for a McDonald’s apple pie.

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