Grammar Lesson of the Day: Infinitives

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Infinitives November 22, 2013


Grammar Lesson of the Day: Infinitives.


“Her five year mission,” cut to three by NBC, “to seek out new civilizations, to boldly split infinitives where no man has split them before!”
The reason why grammatical sticklers don’t like split infinitives is that the infinitive is really one word – so it’s like inserting a word into the middle of a word, which classical poets occasionally did for special effects. That was called tmesis:

It simply won’t please us
When poets do tmesis,
With all their mad cutting,
Their inter- and -rupting.


Besides, when you don’t split the infinitive, you give yourself two nice stylistic and semantic options. The more obvious one is to place the adverb after the infinitive:


To go boldly where no man has gone before.


That stresses the manner of the going: one can go boldly, go diffidently, go slow, go fast, and so on. But if we place the adverb before the infinitive, we suggest that the adverb may modify the entire infinitive phrase:


Boldly to go where no man has gone before.


That may well mean not just that we’re going boldly, like Sean Connery wherever he goes, but that it’s a bold thing to do, to go where no man has gone before. We lose these distinctions when we split the infinitive. I know, I know, people split them all the time these days, but they also put rings in their noses, as my grandmother might have said.

But now I see the linguistic philosophers rising up in revolt. “There are times,” they say, “when the adverb is so intimate a part of the verb that it really is not a modifier at all. Then you’d be splitting the verb if you didn’t split the infinitive.” Their best case: the adverb not. They will say that sometimes there is a difference between, say, not speaking, and not-speaking; the first says that you are not doing something (speaking), while the second says that you are doing something. You are NOTSPEAKING. They say that it’s one thing not to speak; but it’s another to not-speak. Well, it seems to me like a distinction without a difference. Or perhaps we should revise Shakespeare:


To be, or not to be, or to not be, them’s the questions.

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