One of the great controversies of English grammar is whether a full infinitive – to eat, to sleep, to play – can be split by an adverb or other interloper. Beginning in the nineteenth century, many grammarians, reinforced, in time, by innumerable teachers, condemned this practice, asserting, as Henry Alford did in 1864, that “we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.” Thus, Alford deprecated “to scientifically illustrate” when “scientifically to illustrate” and “to illustrate scientifically” would do. What should have been treated as a matter of taste became a litmus test of quality. As the Fowler brothers noted in The King’s English, first published in 1906, “The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.”
Only in recent decades have opponents of this prohibition gained significant traction, and today, in the words of The Chicago Manual of Style, it is “widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate an infinitive’s to from its principal verb.” But though Merriam-Webster Unabridged contends that “there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive,” some writers continue to bend over backwards to avoid such constructions. And this can be problematic, not because avoidance is inherently wrong but because it can compromise a sentence’s clarity or euphony. Take the following example:
In “I intend to really make a splash,” the infinitive, to make, is split, but are the alternatives better? We could say, “I really intend to make a splash,” but the meaning of the sentence has been changed by emphasizing the intention rather than the action. We could also say, “I intend to make a splash really,” but that sounds unnatural.
And so, in the spirit of Star Trek, which has given us one of our culture’s most famous split infinitives, we should be willing “to boldly go where no man” – or at least no respectable Victorian grammarian – “has gone before.”