To go boldly? Good news about the so-called 'split infinitive'

Reader Don in Los Angeles County wrote recently with a question about a well-known grammar issue called a “split infinitive.”

“I learned about them 50 years ago and I am somewhat sensitive about them still,” Don writes. “I always see them in everyday writing in The Times and other media. Are they now considered OK to use?”

The short answer is yes, split infinitives are OK to use. The long answer requires us to dig into a little history that shows that, contrary to popular belief, split infinitives have always been OK. But first, a quick primer.

If you’ve ever heard the term “split infinitive,” there’s a good chance you also heard the world’s most famous example, “to boldly go” from the opening sequence of the original “Star Trek” TV series. Here’s the idea: “To go” is an infinitive form of a verb. Think of that as a verb’s most general form. So unlike “goes” which is a conjugated form of “go” that you use with certain subjects like “he goes” and “she goes,” the infinitive “to go” is the basic form — the verb in its most general sense.
If you put something between “to” and “go,” the argument goes, you’re splitting it up. You’re not supposed to do that, they say, therefore split infinitives like “to boldly go” are errors.

That’s not so. For starters, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, the term “split infinitive” is a misnomer, since “to” isn’t really part of the infinitive.

When used to introduce an infinitive like “go,” the “to” part is best categorized as a particle. The infinitive is the word after “to,” also called the base word. And nobody splits those because you’d have to chop a verb in half: g-boldly-o.

But those facts wouldn’t sway a lot of opponents of this structure, who argue that “to boldly go” and other phrasings that put an adverb after a “to” are bad form no matter what you call them. “Bad” is a matter of taste, so that’s a little more difficult to address. But it helps to look at these examples in my recent column.

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