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If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #4: It’s Bad Grammar to Ever Split an Infinitive.

An infinitive is a verb that hasn’t been conjugated to indicate who’s doing it or when. To go, for example, is an English infinitive. But if you were to put a third word between to and go—like Captain Kirk does when he promises “to boldly go where no man has gone before”—you have split the infinitive, a construction at which many self-appointed grammarians like to tsk-tsk.

Historically, the split infinitive has moved in and out of English usage over time. It was acceptable in Middle English, as we know from its frequent use in the writing of the 14th-century religious reformer John Wycliffe, but the Elizabethans hardly ever used it. It came back into style in the hands of more recent authors from Twain to Kipling to Browning to Thomas Hardy—skilled prose stylists all. In response, despite the fact that the split infinitive had already been used for centuries, some 19th-century purists took up arms against it. In a series of U.S.-Britain negotiations in the 1870s over the Confederate warship Alabama, London instructed its diplomats that they could make many important concessions to the Americans, but under no circumstances were they to split an infinitive in the treaty. Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler got so annoyed with proofreaders “fixing” his split infinitives that in 1947 he fired off a note to his editor: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split.”

Despite what schoolteachers may have told you, no modern commentators enforce a clear-cut rule against splitting infinitives. Instead, the rule of thumb is usually “do it whenever it sounds better.” Many grammarians note that the general rule in English is to place a modifier immediately before the word it modifies, so a sentence will often become less clear when an infinitive is un-split. At the very least, its emphasis and rhythm will change. What if Captain Kirk had promised “boldly to go” or “to go boldly” where no man had gone before? It just isn’t the same.

Quick Quiz: What Pygmalion playwright once wrote the Times of London, “There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives: I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

qkerby


quality posts: 0 Private Messages qkerby

I found a misspelling:

“to go boldy

susani8


quality posts: 0 Private Messages susani8

Gotta love George Bernard Shaw! I have a compilation of his plays and I love it!

dhkendall


quality posts: 0 Private Messages dhkendall

It may be true that anything other than "to boldly go" may not "be the same", but I think that's because it's entered our pop culture lexicon that way, it is of course impossible now to tell whether a "corrected" version would have easily caught on or not.

The phrase "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" has caught on, even though it wasn't the intent (it is grammatically correct, but only if the first part is talking about man as a species, rather than a man (Armstrong) as intended, if "a man" is meant, the sentence is wrong), but then that's also because it's caught hold in the public lexicon and the annals of pop culture.

GodfatherND


quality posts: 0 Private Messages GodfatherND

If you split infinitives, then the terrorists win.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

Citing Star Trek is fine, as far as that goes, but consider:

I decided quickly to post a reply.



Did I decide quickly or post quickly?

While I could quickly decide instead, there's no non-split way to unambiguously post quickly that reads like it wasn't translated by computers.

Just split the damned infinitive. Unless you're using a language where the infinitive is a single word, I mean. Then, don't. N'all-hardiment-er pas.

bacalum


quality posts: 4 Private Messages bacalum

The rule is stupid. In English, with nouns and adjectives, we use the adjective, then the noun (e.g. the big bear or the white house), rather than the other way around. Adjectives are modifiers; so are adverbs. Infinitives are also modifiers. (Ex: How will we go? Boldly. See? The sentence would be logical without the infinitive, which merely modifies the verb.)

If we're going to insist on NOT splitting infinitives, we should insist that all adverbs follow the nouns or adjectives they're modifying. Then we may as well insist on reversing the adjective-noun order, as is done in the Romance languages. I prefer that, actually. Doesn't it make sense to mention the important thing (the noun) first, THEN modify it? Is it more important to let someone know you're talking about a house, or to tell them the color?

We're not going to make such a drastic change anytime soon, so damn the infinitives, full speed ahead!

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Emerson
"...and pedantic grammar police." Webdude

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