Saturday, February 16, 2013

Infinitives: To split or not to split

Infinitives are an oddity in English, as they're basically one word made up of two words, "TO + Verb", like "to go" or "to be". (In many other languages, like French and Latin, the infinitive is one word—aller is French for "to go".)

Infinitives are used to indicate purpose or intention, as in "I want to email Billy," or "To get certified, I must pass the licensing test." They can also be used as a noun to present an action as a thing ("To know me is to love me"), but we'll be talking about infinitives used as modifiers (adjectives or adverbs).

You might have heard an old grammar edict: "Don't split the infinitive." That refers to the previous forbidden tactic of inserting an adverb in the middle between the "to" and the verb. (19th Century English grammarians tended to honor Latin grammar rules, and clearly you cannot split a one-word infinitive as exists in Latin.)

As the great grammarian H.W. Fowler commented, "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solicism in the 19th century: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." In fact, he divided the entire English-speaking population by their attitudes towards the split infinitive: "Those who don't know and don't care, those who don't know and do care, those who know and approve, those who know and condemn, and those who know and discriminate."

Let's be among those who know and discriminate!

So here's the question. I'm going to give you two famous infinitive quotations, both stately and portentous with meaning. One has the adverb BEFORE the infinitive in a way that even sticklers would approve. One cavalierly splits the infinitive to add an adverb.

Both are correct. Why? Why is each correct when one follows the "rule" and the other doesn't?

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:
To be or not to be, that is the question.

James T. Kirk, the Starship Captain:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.

 Your turn! What is the difference? Why in the first should the adverb "not" be placed in front of the infinitive "to be", and in the second, the adverb is correctly placed right before the verb? Speculations please!

(Here is a site that discusses Fowler's philosophy:
(And here's a fun rendition of "to be or not to be"-- A two-year-old playing Hamlet. )


Wes said...

This hurts my brain. I know who Kirk is, but who is that guy from Denmark?

Wes said...

OK, I'll go first. I'm not afraid of showing my ignorance; I've done it enough on here.

Could it be that the guy from Denmark is using the infinitive as a state of being so that therefore it functions as a noun, while Kirk is using the infinitive as an action, essentially a verb?

Just guessing.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled. Both are used as nouns:

the question is, to be or not to be

its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds ... to boldly go"

The following would not work with the adverb in front of 'to':

"To safely avoid the rush, we'd better leave now."

"Promise to always look before you cross the street."

"To completely cook the fish, set the oven on High."

So maybe the rule should be the other way around?


Anonymous said...

It appears that adverbs that are most commonly split are adverbs of manner. I couldn't think of an instance when an adverb of time or place or degree would be used to split an infinitive (but that could be because it is my technical Monday morning, since yesterday was a holiday). To split an adverb of manner would emphasize the manner of which the verb is being done.

"To boldly go". When I read that my thoughts are on how things are being done before the action. It doesn't interrupt the flow if the prose or make me pause and read the sentence again.

"To go boldly". When I read that my thoughts are more on the action and going so that boldly is hanging there, slightly less important.

Some of my thoughts.
Anon in MS

Edittorrent said...

Anon, once we get into the function with in a sentence, everything gets confused!

I was thinking that "boldly go" is the actual phrase. That is, we can replace that with a synonym like "to venture", and it's just an infinitive. That is, the modifier modifies the verb within the infinitive, while in "not to be", the not actually modifies the entire infinitive, hence putting it first makes sense.

Edittorrent said...

Anon in MS, yes, I see what you mean. An adverb of manner usually is one which tells "how"-- how this action is performed, how this speech sounds, etc. So "She spoke boldly," or "He moved swiftly."

Why does placing the modifier at the end do? I think it says that the action (verb) is more important than the manner. What Capt. Kirk was saying, though, was the MANNER was important, so he put it first-- to BOLDLY go.