William Shatner, William Shakespeare and split infinitives

Words can be fun – I enjoy them a great deal, in fact. Speaking is an enjoyable pastime, but the written word has its own charm. Writing has its own idiosyncrasies, though, as I am coming to occasionally find.

WAIT… I just did it! Did what? IT is a nasty habit I didn’t realized I had developed. If I may, I will gladly defer the blame to William Shatner, or, to be more exact, to Gene Roddenberry. The latter was an American screenwriter and futurist, best known as the original developer of “Star Trek.” As the wife of a Trekker (or Trekkie, depending on one’s definition), the opening lines of the show, first narrated by William Shatner, are quite familiar. The mission of the Enterprise is clearly stated: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” I wouldn’t expect this mission to be described, “Boldly, to go where no man has gone before” or even “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” No, the mission was clearly “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” (The newer renditions, including the newest movie, state “no one” rather that “no man,” but the rest or the phrase remains unchanged.)

I am relatively certain that William Shakespeare’s written words are more widely recognized than Gene Roddenberry’s. In one of the most oft-quoted passages of Shakespeare, Hamlet utters the questioning phrase, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It is hard to imagine Hamlet saying, “To be or to not be.” – huh? That simply does not work.

So what is wrong here? I will give Gene Roddenberry credit in that he was a professional, and a writer is allowed to break semantic rules, as long as he knows what they are and why he’s breaking them. (At least this is what my eighth grade English teacher told us. I have held to it, particularly when I knowingly sprinkle sentence fragments into my writings. Fun. 🙂 ) But there is one thing for which I do not excuse Mr. Roddenberry: he made split infinitives sound correct, even artistic. An infinitive is a form of the verb which, in English, starts with “to” then is followed by the root verb. In Spanish, an infinitive is all one word; for instance “cantar” is “to sing.” I wouldn’t be able to split the infinitive there, as it is all one word. In English, though, it is possible “to boldly go” or “to not be,” if a writer so desires.

Why does this matter? In last semester’s writing class, this was the most common technical error I was to (aimlessly) make. I started catching myself, but I would still find “split infinitive” written in red or green ink in a margin. Poor professor! Other errors were smaller and less obvious, but I didn’t seem to find these on my own.

I will be starting another writing class this semester. This will be taught by a different professor, and I hope to not inundate him with split infinitives… or maybe I hope not to inundate him. We’ll see which way it goes.

Author: Angie

I am a wife, a mother, a writer and a child of God. Since 1997, I've lived with multiple sclerosis, and I find that when life slows down, I am able to see more of the lessons that God has for me to learn.

4 thoughts on “William Shatner, William Shakespeare and split infinitives”

  1. I have a Jazz musician friend who teaches guitar. In his classes, he tries to dispel the myth that Jazz is all about breaking the rules any way one wants. Instead, he insists that the rules are paramount because only after learning them is one qualified to know when (and how) to break them.

    The trick seems to be in learning to break the rules in such a way that it still sounds “good”. A trick that Roddenberry seemed to have learned.

    Many thanks for your post!

    1. Well said! As much as I’m not a Trekkie myself, I do have an appreciation for Roddenberry’s “breaking rules” regarding race, gender and types of discrimination in a Sci Fi universe. This is certainly the case with music also!

  2. Love your post! I have problems with this myself. Academic writing is so unforgiving! Yet, artistically speaking, prose needs to flow … so if I have to break an infinitive, I’m going to (shamelessly) break it (especially if I’m writing dialogue for characters).

    1. Mel,
      I had this conversation with my creative writing prof last year (the class I was preparing to begin when I wrote this). He and I agreed that the flow of the language can trump the official rules of language… and none would expect these rules to apply to dialogue. 🙂

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