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Star Trek and the Split Infinitive Posted by on Jun 27, 2019 in Culture, English Grammar, English Language

Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission – To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!

Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

These are the very famous opening lines to the credit sequence for Star Trek. This speech, dating back to September of 1966, remains one of the most enduring and iconic in the history of popular culture. You probably know someone who can quote it by heart. It also managed to change the English language forever.

Seriously, I’m not kidding. Let me explain.

In English, we have a grammatical construction called a split infinitive, consisting of an infinitive with an adverb or other word inserted between to and its corresponding verb. To quietly sneak out, Abigail removed her shoes. The infinitive in that sentence is to sneak. The adverb quietly splits the infinitive.

So, what’s wrong with that? Well, there are some major objections to using split infinitives.

  1. They are unnecessary.

Writers need to be clear, and split infinitives often muddy the language. Greg continued to noisily snore in the corner of the room. The phrasing is awkward. If you didn’t split the infinitive, you would have Greg continued to snore noisily in the corner of the room. It’s a simple change, but the sentence reads better. In fact, in most cases, putting the adverb after the infinitive is just more elegant.

  1. They are easily overused.

Once writers get in the habit of using split infinitives, they seem to think that every instance calls for it. This is also sloppy writing. In order to clearly establish his superior strength, Jamal continued to aggressively pound the punching bag. One adverb in that sentence is quite sufficient. Or, if you want to completely befuddle your reader, by all means, continue to unnecessarily use modifiers.

Unfortunately, because of Henry Alford, an English grammarian in 1864, many English scholars believed that split infinitives should never be used. In his book, The Queen’s English, Alford stated that “…there is no good reason to split the infinitive.” This is clearly an opinion, not a grammar rule. Nevertheless, English teachers have been repeating this opinion as fact for generations. Or, rather, until just before The Next Generation.

When Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, wrote the words which would introduce his series, he knew perfectly well that the construct …To boldly go…was a split infinitive. It didn’t matter. To go boldly where no man has gone before was awkward phrasing. It was also less forceful. Roddenberry was a gifted writer who knew when to bend the rules.

I should point out that Roddenberry was hardly the first to use split infinitives to great effect. Lord Byron, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ernest Hemingway were all excellent masters of the written word and you can find many brilliant examples of split infinitives in their work. But it was Roddenberry who gave us one which would be quoted so commonly as to be part of our culture. Since Star Trek, split infinitives have become accepted by all major experts on English grammar.

Moreover, as a response to the change in society’s acceptance of sexual equality, Roddenberry later rewrote his famous speech. When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered 21 years after the original series, the phrase was changed to “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The difference was noted, but the public accepted it. And, by then, nobody cared about the split infinitive.

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  1. Eduardo:

    Wonderful explanation of the split infinitive. Thank you very much.