To boldly go where Byron went before …


Are we now safe to boldly go where we weren’t allowed to before? Glossophilia tackles the dastardly split infinitive: here’s most of what you hoped possibly to know — or hoped to possibly know — about grammar’s favorite villain.

Lord Byron’s poem Solitude, written in the early 19th century, opens with these lines:

“To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene”

One of England’s greatest poets, Lord Byron was known to have led a colorful life marked by scandal — but I don’t think splitting infinitives was counted among his egregious behaviors. He was happy “to slowly trace” the scene he beheld, and it’s probably safe to say that he didn’t ruffle any grammarians’ feathers when he wrote those words. So when did we stop being allowed to boldly split our infinitives, as the Star Trek writers famously dared to do in the 1960s when the prohibition was in full force? (The TV & movie franchise’s opening line — “to boldly go where no man has gone before” — became and remains the poster boy for bad-boy infinitive-splitters. And even though the words were lifted almost verbatim from a White House booklet — “Introduction to Outer Space“, published the year after the 1957 Sputnik flight — we can’t blame the famous grammatical faux pas on Eisenhower and his men, since they didn’t use that bold adverb to split their intergalactic infinitive.*)

Henry Hitchings, in his book The Language Wars, summarizes the early life of the split infinitive — from its innocent, happy and unnamed form through its identification, indictment and conviction at the end of the 19th century. “The split infinitive is found at least as early as the thirteenth century. It occurs a couple of times in Chaucer, rather more often in the writings of John Wyclif, and a huge amount in the fifteenth-century works of Reginald Pecock, a Welsh bishop who delighted in the form. It seems to have been considered inelegant for most of the two centuries that followed — Shakespeare has only one, in a sonnet (‘Thy pity may deserve to pitied be’) — and was uncommon until the later stages of the eighteenth century, when it began to appear in the writings of even the most punctilious authors, such as Samuel Johnson. Hostility to the practice of splitting infinitives developed in the nineteenth century. A magazine article from 1834 may well be the first published condemnation of it. A large number of similar prohibitions followed. The first to call it a ‘split infinitive’ was a contributor to the magazine Academy in 1897.”

Why was it thought inelegant in the 16th and 17th centuries — and later, to 19th- and 20th-century ears, as almost criminal — to insert an adverb between the infinitive “to” and the verb it governs? The answer, simply, is that it wasn’t Latin. In the language of the enlightened, with its high standards for speakers of good and proper English to aspire to, you couldn’t split an infinitive even if you wanted to, because the infinitive form of most Latin verbs comes in just one unsplittable word: amare, “to love”; laudare, “to praise”. If you never split that verb in Latin, then why would you want to try and go there in English? Well, as Steven Pinker noted a decade ago in the New Republic, “Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to notwhoops, not tosplit an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas.”

In the 1920s, H. W. Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, summed up one of grammar’s lengthiest and most enduring debates, which simmers into the 21st century: “The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know & distinguish. …

He goes on: “To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed. These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives.”

Elsewhere in his writings on the subject, Fowler comes to this conclusion: “We maintain that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality.”

There in a Fowler nutshell is what is acknowledged and agreed on — to varying degrees — by most usage guides today. Although the split infinitive is undergoing something of a rehabilitation and can now hold its head high when invited to the party (in the absence of more appropriate and welcome guests), it’s never going to be at the top of the invitation list and will probably continue to grate on sensitive ears. Here’s what some of the modern usage authorities tell us about whether and when we can split our infinitives without fear or shame.

Eric Partridge: Usage and Abusage (1973): “Avoid the split infinitive wherever possible; but if it is the clearest and the most natural construction, use it boldly. The angels are on our side.”

Strunk & White: Elements of Style (1999): “There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb. … The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.” The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. A matter of ear.”

Mark Davidson: Right, Wrong and Risky (2006): “Sometimes a split infinitive is the only alternative to awkwardness and inaccuracy. … But never split an infinitive if the result is awkward. For example, to dangerously live should be unsplit so that it reads to live dangerously. Likewise, it is better to unsplit clumsy, multiple splits such as to painlessly, prudently, and profitably consolidate your debts by putting the adverbs at the end.”

Oxford American Dictionary (2008): “Many people still think that splitting infinitives … is wrong. They think that it is better to say she used secretly to admire him rather than she used to secretly admire him, although this sometimes sounds awkward or gives a different emphasis to what is being said. For this reason, the rule about not splitting infinitives is not followed so strictly today, although it is best not to split them in formal writing.”

Paul Brians: Common Errors in English Usage (2009): “It is good to be aware that the insertion of one or more words between “to” and a verb is not strictly speaking an error, and is often more expressive and graceful than moving the intervening words elsewhere. But so many people are offended by split infinitives that it is better to avoid them except when the alternatives sound strained and awkward.”

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (2014; pp. 228-30): “Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless. The prohibition of split infinitives … is downright pernicious. Good writers who have been brainwashed into unsplitting their infinitives can come out with monstrosities such as these: ‘Hobbes concluded that the only way out of the mess is for everyone permanently to surrender to an authoritarian ruler.’ […] This does not mean that infinitives should always be split. When the adverbial modifier is long and heavy, or when it contains the most important information in a sentence, it should be moved to the end, just like any other heavy or newsworthy phrase. … Indeed, it’s a good habit to at least consider moving an adverb to the end of the verb phrase. … Finally, in many cases a quantifier naturally floats leftward away from the verb, unsplitting the infinitive, as in the examples [below].”

And you’ll have to read the book to see his examples …

* “The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before.”

*   *   *


To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

— Lord Byron

For Worth