Boldly go? No, go boldly!

The saying “Boldly go where no man has gone before” is incorrect, according to a friend of mine. He seems to think that it should “Go boldly where no man has gone before”.


It’s considered bad style to needlessly split infinitives … er, to split infinitives needlessly.

Like many style rules, this one is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

“To boldly go where…” is the classic example of a split infinitive, which is a bad thing to start a sentence with.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with “to boldly go.” The American Heritage Book of English Usage thinks it is fine. Split infinitives have been around in English for a long time.

Of course, in the Star Trek intro, “to boldly go” doesn’t actually start a sentence – that phrase ends it.

the phrase is “to boldly go” which, technically, is ungrammatical. “To go” is an infinitive verb form and should be treated as if it were one word. Inserting an adverb (“boldly” “slowly” “affectionately”) between them is bad form. Also the infinitive is actually a noun, so it should have an adjective rather than an adverb. “The mission is to go.” “To go” is equivalent to “mission.” You could as easily say “to go is the mission.” You wouldn’t say “to go is the boldly mission.” It would be confusing to say “the mission is to go bold.” but let’s change the context. What if the mission were to visit a nudist colony? Then “the mission is to go naked.” Not nakedly. Someone, maybe Douglas Adams (removing hat, looking downward, sniffing), said, “the mission to boldly split infinitives that have never been split before.”

These are the voyages of the star ship enterprise. Its five year mission: to go where no man has gone before.

As a person who loves language, I think the whole issue of boldness just clutters up what is intrinsically pretty darned bold to begin with. Madison Avenue’s influence on the language is to turn it all into mush. Intensifiers always make language more impotent. How else is one to go where no man has gone before? Timidly? Hesitantly?

To say that splitting infinitives is “ungrammatical” is not correct. Split inifitives have been a part of the English language for much longer than the “rule” that you should never split infinitives. In fact, that “rule” (which, by the way, is less and less expounded) came from a movement in the 18th century to try to make English conform to Latin grammatical standards. Most usage experts nowadays don’t think that splitting an infinitive is inherently wrong.

Here is a bit from the link above:

From "The Elements of Style", which is my bible on such matters:

Split Infinitive. There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.

Regarding the Star Trek tag line, I think a good case can be made that the writer was indeed wishing to put unusual stress on the adverb, and therefore this particular split infinitive probably deserves a pass.

*Originally posted by JeffB *

I think you will find that infractions have always gone on longer than there were rules against them. People killed each other, for example, long before there were laws against murder. Hardly ever is there a rule against a thing that wasn’t done previous to the rule.

Your point about clarity is a better one. One of the reasons people who enforce rules become so anal about them is that they don’t want to get into gray areas and then start making value judgments. It’s much easier to have a rule and stick to it. Thus you will see copy editors changing predicates to clump the verbs together and exclude the adverb, moving it out toward the prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. Verbs are stronger that way and the rules are followed, so you won’t end up in a shouting match with your editor–or at least not in a shouting match you are likely to lose.

“To go” is a noun. It doesn’t sound like one, but it is. Connecting an adverb to it is indefensible. Splitting an infinitive may be overlookable but it’s still indefensible. A split infinitive is never stronger than an unsplit infinitive. Often it is weaker. If you fall into the habit of splitting infinitives without recognizing that you are on thin ice, your writing will suffer.

The question was whether the phrase was wrong. It is. Some editors (obviously) will put up with this sort of error, but it’s still wrong.

I don’t think so. “Go” is a verb and if you modify a verb, you need an adverb. Otherwise why didn’t you say “timid” or “hesitant” here?

You yourself (correctly) used the adverbs “timidly” and “hesitantly” to describe how one is to go.

“To go” is used as a noun, but “go” is a verb and its modifiers are adverbs.

Yes, there is something to be said for euphony. Or, possibly, I am just wrong. “To go” is never the verb in clause.

Shall we discuss “who” and “whom” now?

Gabby: You seem to be suggesting that one of following two propositions must be true.

  1. Infinitives can only be modified by adjectives. In which case the line becomes, “Our five-year mission: bold to go where no man has gone before.”

  2. Infinitives cannot be modified by either adverbs or adverbs. If you want to use the infinitive “to go”, you cannot go boldy, or timidly, or hesitantly. You just go.

While these may make the language neat and tidy, neither rule seems justified on the grounds of either usage or expressiveness.

Douglas Adams parodied this faux pas in the Star Trek intro in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (with which I’m sure almost everyone here is familiar):

Space…the final graveyard. These are the voyages of the Red-Shirted Ensigns. Their usually considerably shorter than five-year mission: to explore deadly new worlds; to seek out dangerous life and hostile civilizations; to discover new and different ways of dying–to go, quaking with terror and begging the Captain to please for God’s sake take someone else, where no man has died before!

Yes, you are just wrong. “To go” is not a noun; it is the infinitive form of the verb “go,” which can be used like a noun. There is a subtle difference. As the infinitive form of a verb, “to go” takes adverbs as modifiers, as do all infinitive forms. For example: “I want to get there quickly.” If “to get” were really a noun, we could say “I want a quick to get there.”

In the sentence, “to boldly go” is used like a noun, but it’s still an infinitive verb form. It is more or less the equivalent of the gerund form “going,” in the sense that you could say “Our five year mission is boldly going where no man has gone before.” You wouldn’t say “Our five year mission is bold going,” etc.

Now, the gerund form can be used in different ways, like this: (1) “A quick reading of the novel fails to reveal its subtleties” versus (2) “Quickly reading the novel fails to reveal its subtleties.” But the infinitive verb can be used only in the second way (“To read the novel quickly”), never the first way (“A quick to read of the novel”).

As always, usage is the important thing. For instance, there is a big difference between “I like dining” and “I am dining.” In the first example, “dining” could be taken as a noun and would therefore accept an adjective (“I like fine dining”). In the second, “dining” is clearly a verb and would take an adverb (“I like dining slowly, in order to savor the meal”).

By the way, I am a professional editor and writer, and I frequently undo split infinitives, because usually there is a better way to phrase the sentence, not because there is a hard and fast rule. The bottom line is that split infinitives do not cause semantic confusion, and there are times when rewriting the sentence weakens the meaning, forcing the adverb too far away from the word it is meant to modify. In this case, sticking to the rule for its own sake is simply bad editing.

Wow, ScriptAnalyst - clear, declarative and populated with examples. Your explanation gets my vote!!!

The Star Trek quote is my favorite example of the silliness of the split infintive “rule.”

[Captain Kirk voice]"…to go boldly where no man has gone before"[/Captain Kirk voice] That just sounds wrong compared with the original – even if I were hearing it for the first time I’d feel the same way. The original has a much stronger, nay, bolder feeling somehow.

Well said, and I’d like to add that even the OED agrees on this point:

Doh, I can’t seem to tell my adverbs from my adjectives today.

Here’s another vote for ScriptAnalyst’s analysis. Well said!