To Boldly Go... to 'Infinitive' and Beyond!

Rob Kyff on

"Never split an infinitive!"

Perhaps no dictum struck more terror in our childish hearts. (Well, OK, there was that thing about toads giving you warts.)

But like the toad taboo, the ban on split infinitives is just a superstition. I can assure you that splitting an infinitive won't give you warts.

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb. In English, an infinitive is usually preceded by "to," but not always. In the sentence "I helped the toad hop," for instance, "hop" is an infinitive even though there's no "to" before it.

Until the mid-1800s, English speakers and writers split infinitives without guilt, freely placing an adverb between a "to" and its verb. For instance, the esteemed poet Lord Byron wrote, "To slowly trace the forest's shady scene."

During the 1850s, however grumpy grammarians got the bright idea that, because infinitives couldn't be split in Latin, they shouldn't be split in English. They thought Byron's line should read, "Slowly to trace the forest's shady scene," or "To trace slowly the forest's shady scene."

This "Ban-the-Split-Infinitive" mania reached absurdity after the Civil War. When the U.S. sued Britain for damages inflicted by Confederate ships built in England, the British government refused to sign any agreement that contained a split infinitive. (Apparently, they'd felt no similar aversion to splitting Union vessels in two.)

This war on split infinitives was misguided for two reasons:


First, because an English infinitive is really one word, not two, separating "to" from the infinitive isn't really splitting the infinitive.

Second, while it's not wise to thoughtlessly, casually and frequently insert a lot of words between "to" and its verb (as the previous phrase demonstrates), obsessive avoidance of split infinitives can lead to awkward and ambiguous sentences.

For instance, avoiding the split infinitive in this sentence -- "I decided happily to split infinitives" -- makes it sound as if "happily" describes the deciding, not the splitting. In this case, only a split infinitive - "I decided to happily split infinitives" -- conveys the full glee of a splitting spree.

Perhaps the best example of a useful split infinitive is the "Star Trek" mission statement: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." The unsplit alternatives -- "Boldly to go" and "To go boldly" -- remove "boldly" from center stage and interrupt the iambic rhyme pattern: "to BOLD ly GO where NO man." They just don't go as boldly.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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