Thursday, April 12, 2007

Split, split, split that infinitive!

Take a careful look at the following sentence and see what's wrong with it.

"To boldly go where no man has gone before."

It's not a sentence? Well, um, okay. What else?

Did you say "nothing"?

Congratulations. I agree with you.

A generation or so ago, back when they taught grammar in schools, one of the quickest ways to get a red mark on your English homework was to split an infinitive. An infinitive, in English, is the form of a verb when preceded by the preposition "to", i.e. "to go". It was commonly, though often incorrectly, thought to be wrong to split infinitives, ever. That absolute prohibition, never completely well grounded, has vanished nearly to the point of extinction nowadays. This probably has less to do with today's high school students casting a more tolerant eye towards infinitives than the fact that they probably have no idea what an infinitive is, of course, but if you are reading this blog instead of downloading Justin Timberlake videos, you probably do have an idea. But as they say, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. (Though not as dangerous as no knowledge, but I digress.)

Almost every English verb has an infinitive form beginning with "to", but some do not. My seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Sowder, was reminded of this the year before I began junior high when she offered an "A" for the six weeks to the students in one of her classes "to anyone who could think of a verb that did not have an infinitive form beginning in 'to'". One of my lifelong friends, and a bigger smart aleck than me, thought for a while, and responded "To could?" Several helping verbs later, he and some of his classmates no longer had to worry about homework for a while.

One theory about how the rule against split infinitives began is that Latin infinitives are only one word. Thus, the Latin word for "to love" is "amare". Since there's no splitting "amare", it follows that one cannot split "to love". Unfortunately, Romans were even worse about obscure grammar rules that English teachers; there are six, count them, six infinitives for each regular Latin verb. I suspect the real reason Rome burned was not that Nero was playing his violin but was practicing conjugation for his dissertation defense. In any event, it's not clear that Latin usage is a sufficiently strong reason not to split infinitives in a different language.

(I should note that the Latin origin theory of the rule against split infinitives is only one of several.)

If there is no good reason not to split infinitives, why does the prohibition persist today? the short answer is that there are good reasons. Even though it's not always bad to split infinitives, it frequently is. The reader's mind tends to think of an infinitive as one word, and if it's possible to keep the two parts together, it should be done. If not, you may sound as awkward as this famous wordsmith:
They want to not just get you off the air but also — to savor the full enjoyment — bring you to your knees financially.
This is a compound infinitive, because the italicized "to" belongs to both "get" and "bring"; the latter appears a full fifteen words later in the sentence -- and after a second "to", to boot. The composer of this horrible prose is none other than Dick Cavett, who is featured in the New York Times Select online edition as ... an expert on grammar. There are various ways "to not just get" could be edited to read more smoothly; the solution to the second split is much easier.
Not only do they want to get you off the air, but also -- to savor the full enjoyment -- to bring you to your knees financially.
(Don't get me started about "but also"; that has to be another post.)

So, it appears, though there is no absolute prohibition against split infinitives (never mind what your college English teacher taught you), it's a good idea to avoid them when it obscures the idea you were trying to convey.

But what if the "correct" infinitive sounds wrong? For example: "Boldly to go where no man has gone before", or "To go boldly where no man has gone before". The infinitives are standing at attention, dutifully appearing in unitary unsplit form, but their sentences sound awkward to us, and it's not just because we've heard the "incorrect" version so many times. Adverbs normally do not belong at the beginning of a sentence (or, in this case, a phrase masquerading as a sentence). "To go boldly" is a little less jarring, and I suspect if Mr. Shatner had uttered the phrase in that incarnation, we'd all be the same. But there is something about the rhythm created by splitting the infinitive.
To bold-ly go where no one has gone be-fore.
The line is so close to iambic pentameter it's virtually Shakespearean. That, and the recurring emphasised "o"s, make a little thing like a split infinitive seem silly.

This just in: Kurt Vonnegut was a writer. He died. So it goes.

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