Star Trek: Is The Phrase "To Boldly Go" Grammatically Incorrect?

Star Trek's intro infamously includes the phrase "to boldly go," which is a split infinitive - but are split infinitives bad grammar or not?

Is Star Trek’s iconic introduction quote - “to boldly go” - actually grammatically incorrect? The line features at the front of episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, spoken by their respective Enterprise captains, and arguably sounds a lot more poetic than the alternative, “to go boldly,” might have. Despite this, it’s actually been a subject of some controversy among grammar enthusiasts.

In English grammar, the phrase “to boldly go” is a split infinitive, which English classes warn to never write. A split infinitive, of course, is when the most basic form of a verb – sleep, dream, eat – is preceded by the word “to” plus another word, usually an adverb - to soundly sleep, to sweetly dream, to slowly eat. Split infinitives are fairly unique to English. Many languages have single-word infinitives, making them impossible to split. For example, in Spanish, “to sleep” is the single word dormir. But even the phrase “split infinitive” is a bit of a fallacy, since the most basic infinitive form in English is also a single word, and adding the word “to” changes the form. Nonetheless, the rule to never split infinitives has been around, coming and going, for hundreds of years.

Luckily, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did not follow the conventional grammar rule creating one of the most immediately memorable elements of the Star Trek brand. Grammatically, it may not be entirely correct, but the rule behind criticisms of “to boldy go” as a split infinitive itself may not be entirely right. And most importantly, the phrase still does make sense.

Kirk and Bones in Star Trek III

Correct or not, the phrase would sound terrible if it were changed to an un-split infinitive: “to go boldly” and “boldly to go” sound stilted and uncomfortable. “To boldly go” sounds right, but it might come as a relief and/or surprise to know that it is right simply because of how pervasive the split infinitive rule has become. So, how did we get this rule in English and why is it probably still being taught in high school English classes?

The rule originated when the first English grammar rules were being written. At the time, Latin was the language of prestige and power while English was the language of the poor and lower class. The authors of the English rules wanted to elevate the language by taking rules from Latin. If something couldn’t be done in Latin, they reasoned, it shouldn’t be done in English. The problem is that it can be done in English and the rule is completely arbitrary. Many well-known authors either did not know of the rule or, more likely, didn’t care - including Shakespeare, whom Jean-Luc Picard frequently quoted. The split infinitive only became a hot-button issue in the early 1800s before it was widely accepted and persisted for nearly two centuries. In 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary – regarded as the most reputable source for English word definitions and grammar – officially put the archaic rule to rest.

The iconic lines spoken by Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard are powerful and inspiring, so whether they are grammatically correct is likely unimportant to many Star Trek fans. But anyone who has ever been told that this cherished phrase is “not correct, actually” may find vindication in the fact that, actually, it is.

By Caroline Fox, first published on October 19, 2020