TO BOLDLY SPLIT INFINITIVES
By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online
It is probably safe to say that the number of people who would never split an infinitive is a good deal larger than the number of people who actually know what an infinitive is and does.|
The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words
In early August of 1966, with the premiere of his new TV show Star Trek less than six weeks away, Gene Roddenberry was being pressured by producers to finish the narration that would open each episode. Here is his first draft, according to Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, by Herbert Solow and Robert Justman.
This is the story of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Assigned a five year patrol of our galaxy, the giant starship visits Earth colonies, regulates commerce, and explores strange new worlds and civilizations. These are its voyages, and its adventures.
Unhappy, Roddenberry tried again:
This is the adventure of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Assigned a five year galaxy patrol, the bold crew of the giant starship explores the excitement of strange new worlds, uncharted civilizations, and exotic people. These are its voyages and its adventures.
In an exchange of memos at Desilu studios, writer and producer John Black argued "the narration needs more drama" and proposed the following:
Space, the final frontier. Endless. Silent. Waiting. This is the story of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Its mission. A five year patrol of the galaxy. To seek out and contact all alien life. To explore. To travel the vast galaxy, where no man has gone before. A Star Trek.
More notes were sent, including a proposal by producer Bob Justman to shorten the cumbersome United Space Ship Enterprise to Starship Enterprise. Then on August 10, Justman wrote Roddenberry again, pleading with him to hurry up. "As per our conversation last night on the phone, it is absolutely imperative that we record with William Shatner the Standard Opening Narration."
That afternoon, just minutes after Roddenberry finished typing the final version, Shatner was hauled off the set of Dagger of the Mind (the ninth episode of Star Trek to be filmed at Desilu) and rushed to a dubbing stage where, as Captain James T. Kirk, he recorded the following:
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.
Decades later "five-year" became "continuing," and the sexist term "no man" was replaced by "no one." But the rest remained intact, including what is probably the most famous split infinitive in modern, North American popular culture: "to boldly go."
WHAT IS AN INFINITIVE?
An infinitive is a type of verb that's in the "infinite mood" a term grammarians use to describe verbs that indicate action without specifying who's involved (such as the first or third person), the number involved (plural or singular), and the time involved (past, present, or future tense.) In the last sentence, for instance, the words "to describe" form an infinitive. ("They had hoped to describe," "I will try to describe," "She won't be able to describe," and so on.) "Full infinitives" always include the word to, while "bare infinitives" do not.)
HOW DO YOU SPLIT IT?
If you put something (usually an adverb) between the particle to and the verb you are said to have "split the infinitive" (to boldly go.) The term has been around only since the late 1800s, according to the 1995 Oxford Essential Guide to the English Language, although the rule against splitting infinitives was actually concocted by some intolerant grammarians hundreds of years earlier.
IS A SPLIT INFINITIVE A MISTAKE ?
To quickly answer: no. In his book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson points out that virtually all recognized authorities on English (from Theodore Bernstein and Henry W. Fowler to Eric Partridge and Ernest Gowers) agree there is no reason to put the needs of the infinitive above the needs of the adverb. Still some people cling to the idea. The problem, of course, is the troublesome tradition of imposing rules of Latin on English. While it's true an infinitive is never split in Latin, there's a simple reason: it's one word. For example, amare (to love) and crescere (to grow).
Sometimes slipping an adverb in the middle of the infinitive can soften a thought, emphasize an idea, or improve a sentence's rhythm. Roddenberry's Star Trek opening includes two untouched infinitives, to explore and to seek, that set up the split one nicely. Such constructions may be carefully planned or purely accidental, the result of last-minute composition to meet a deadline.
In his 1926 classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler points out two problems with stubbornly refusing to split an infinitive under any circumstances: "patent artificiality" and "real ambiguity." For example, consider the following split infinitive: "Our goal is to further cement trade relations." Moving further ahead of the infinitive is awkward ("further to cement"), while putting it after the infinitive creates confusion ("to cement further trade relations.")
Therefore, even though adverbs are portable moving them may make matters worse. That's why Fowler says people who insist on tinkering with split infinitives, trying to fix what they consider poor style, should be ready to recast entire sentences instead of merely "having a word lifted from its original place and dumped elsewhere."
According to Oxford, the earliest example of a split infinitive dates back to the 13th century. Since then, it's fallen in and out of favour several times. For example, only one split infinitive can be found in Shakespeare. (In Sonnet 142, he wrote: "Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows thy pity may deserve to pitied be.") But by the 1800s it began turning up again, in the works of Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, and others.
For the past 100 years, virtually all leading experts on English have dismissed the blanket rule against split infinitives as pointless. So why do some writers and editors still enforce it? The answer may be perception.
"People with strong erroneous views about 'correct' English are just the sort of people who consider your application for a job, decide whether you are 'educated' or not, wonder about your general suitability for this and that," complained British novelist Kingsley Amis in his 1997 book The King's English, published two years after his death. "I personally think that to split an infinitive is perfectly legitimate, but I do my best never to split one in public and I would certainly not advise anybody else to do so, even today."
Many writers, however, have no such fear only a lot of contempt for unwanted editing. In a letter written in 1947, U.S. author Raymond Chandler put it this way: "Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split."
Even Partridge, who was not fond of the split infinitive, concluded: "if it is the clearest and most natural construction, use it boldly. The angels are on our side." Not just angels, of course, but Star Trek captains, CBC journalists, and other voices in the air.
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