Grammar

The Split Infinitive Everyone Knows…Without Realizing It

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For some who aren’t as enthusiastic about grammar, terms like ‘split infinitive’ may very well prompt looks of confusion.

Trust me: you know what a split infinitive is. As the featured photo for this post might suggest, you’ll find one in a particular science fiction television series.

But you don’t have to be a fan of the Star Trek franchise to be able to define what a split infinitive actually is. If you know anything about the show at all, no matter how little, you’re probably familiar with one of the most familiar examples.

First things first.

What’s an infinitive?

You can Google what an infinitive is in grammar and find all sorts of complicated explanations. The simplest, perhaps, might be this one:

An infinitive verb is essentially the base form of a verb with the word “to” in front of it. 

There you go. You might like an example. That’s no problem.

Imagine poor George, a chronic insomniac:

George just wanted to sleep but his noisy neighbors kept waking him up.

Sleep can be a noun or verb. In this case, to sleep is an infinitive.

When I was a kid, I hoped to be a teacher.

To be, in this case, is the infinitive.

You can surely imagine an endless series of examples. But that’s about as easy a definition as you can get.

What infinitives have in common is the word to and the verb form side by side.

Unless you create a split infinitive.

A split infinitive happens when you insert a word between the to and the verb. When something gets placed in between the pair, it’s usually an adverb.

Some grammatical purists insist that splitting an infinitive is always a mistake. Others disagree. It’s much like the old argument about never ending a sentence with a preposition. For some people, it will always seem wrong. But for others, there are perfectly valid examples that prove the construction is perfectly understood.

This brings me to that certain science fiction series I mentioned off the top.

When the series premiered back in 1966, William Shatner — Captain Kirk himself — narrated the title sequence:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!

I see three infinitives in that little intro. But one of them just so happens to be split.

“To boldly go” is a split infinitive because that pesky little adverb, boldly, got shoved in between the to and go.

The simple fix that would have prevented the split would have been to move boldly one position to the right: “to go boldly.”

That would have kept to go together. Boldly would have modified the infinitive to go, so it would still be an adverb.

But does anyone honestly hear the phrase, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and seriously not understand the sentiment? I doubt it.

The fact is, there’s no strict rule that a split infinitive is a grammatical sin. They can make the writing sound a bit awkward at times, but in this case, it doesn’t. The message is still clear. To me, perhaps because I’ve heard it so long, it doesn’t sound awkward at all.

So don’t be afraid to split an occasional infinitive if you really believe the split sounds better. But don’t run wild with it. Sometimes “rules” do exist for a reason!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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