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Around town: Shatner and early grammar woes

William_Shatner_Star_Trek_first_episode_1966(Or why you should hire an editor.)

Local institution the University of British Columbia (UBC) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this school year. This weekend, as part of its centenary celebrations, UBC is running a daylong event: UBC100: What’s Next? A day of exploring the future, a series of talks on upcoming issues in science, community and technology. To round off the day in style, actor, musician, author and horse breeder William Shatner will share his perspective in a talk called The Curious Life, and will take questions from the audience.

My Around Town series, as I’ve explained previously, is a collection of posts highlighting great local science events. I usually pull together interesting news from conferences happening in Vancouver or explore the topics of the conferences in a more general way. With Captain Kirk himself in town, there are so many potential topics for an Around Town blog post here: NASAStar Trek…space…technology…horse breeding?

Should I focus on the amazing science portrayed through the decades and presented seamlessly by Shatner and fellow actors in one of the most iconic science fiction series of all time? From phasers to automatic doors, ion drives and warp speed to tricorders and teleportation, there’s so much to cover that has or is making its way from fiction into our modern life. As a series, Star Trek presented future science in a highly believable and engaging way, inspiring kids and adults alike to think creatively about technological development. The science of Star Trek is an obvious choice.

Or is it?

Maybe I should instead focus on the social impact of Star Trek—that first televised interracial kiss, for example? Or discuss the unluckiness of the red jersey? Or TribblesKlingon?

What about life on other planets?

Again, no, though it may be highly illogical. Much has been written by writers more fanatical than myself, so instead I will focus on something a little more mundane but still highly relevant.

How about grammar?

To boldly go: a.k.a. splitting the infinitive.

With every opening credits sequence enunciated in Mr. Shatner’s sweet (and Canadian) tones, the adults around me would smugly comment, “He’s splitting an infinitive” and then tut-tut knowingly.

For most of my adult life, “to boldly go” has neatly encapsulated what can go wrong with text and how little the average user understands grammar. Although there are indeed basics that are easy to follow, without which the text screams out from the page like a siren, making educated readers shudder inwardly, there is still a lot of grammar that makes no sense to writers. Splitting an infinitive is one, though in that lovely confusing world of modern and dynamic grammar, maybe it isn’t. Infinitive splitting may simply be the triumph of personal style and influence over common usage. And this is the conundrum: as a writer, should I be worrying about content or syntax? Should I focus on mechanics or creativity?

In answer, let me quote you some William Shatner: “I’ve discovered that the more freedom I have to be creative, the more creative I become.” Maybe hand over some of the worry to an editor, who will not only run the red pen through the text but also understand the art and craft of grammar. Doubly lucky if the editor also “speaks science.”

Language use is evolving, though maybe not at the warp speeds of science and technology, and it’s probably safe to say that split infinitives won’t be a major part of UBC’s exploration day. Although “to boldly go” might only be mentioned in a Star Trek context, don’t forget its grammatical importance. Hire an editor so you too can explore strange new worlds words.

Make it so!

UBC100: What’s Next? A day of exploring the future
Chan Centre, UBC, May 28, 2016

[Editor’s note: I, too, grew up surrounded by grammar-sensitive adults (which is probably why I became one!). I remember my dad reprimanding CBC every time he heard a split infinitive on the radio. When I learned that the split infinitive rule is in fact a holdover from Latin and doesn’t really make sense as a rule in English, I felt a total thrill of rebellion. (For my cautious self, the rebellion felt so liberating because I wasn’t breaking a rule…there was really no rule to break to begin with.) Most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, say it’s okay to split infinitives. It’s also worth noting that many, Chicago included, use the famed “to boldly go” as an example to highlight their point. —Roma]

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