Graduation address: Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE

Lauren Sykes
Friday 16 June 2023

Friday 16 June 2023

Morning ceremony

To boldly go

As Principal and Vice-Chancellor, it is now my duty, and my pleasure, to deliver today’s graduation address.

First of all, I would like to convey my heartfelt congratulations to you all on what you have achieved. You will have heard the word ‘congratulations’ a lot today – from your family, your friends, and your tutors here at the University who are incredibly proud of you. Indeed, we all are. The degree you have received was not easily earned: it acknowledges months or years of hard work, focus, and discipline. To each and every one of you, very well done and – yet again – congratulations.

You have crossed the stage and you are now about to boldly go where you have never quite been before. And while that may sound literally inaccurate, because at the end of this ceremony you will process to St Salvator’s Quad, where you will have been many a time throughout your University life, and then, perhaps, out into the restaurants and bars of St Andrews to celebrate with family and friends, where I am quite certain you have all been before, you have never been there as a St Andrews graduate holding the particular degree with which you have been bestowed during this ceremony. You will find this not only changes who you are, but that it changes how you interact with the world, as new prospects start to occur to you and open up in places that once seemed so familiar.

Of course, the phrase I used near the beginning of this address is not original to me. The line “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is one of the most memorable phrases from the opening sequence of the original 1960s Star Trek television series (however, please do not use this to identify me as a fanatical Trekkie).

It is also a memorable phrase because in some people’s eyes – my own included – it breaks a cardinal grammatical rule: don’t split infinitives. In this way of seeing, nothing should come between the infinitive form of the verb – here, ‘go’ – and the preposition that governs it, ‘to’. To boldly go is perhaps one of the most well-known breaches of this rule – so well-known in fact that it is cited on the Wikipedia page dedicated to explaining the split infinitive rule. To go boldly where no woman has gone before would be, to work a double variation on the theme, a preferable formulation.

However, when you look into the history of the split infinitive rule (as I am sure you all will immediately after this ceremony), you find that it is both relatively recent and regularly contested. It is often claimed that the rule has its origins in the invocation of the linguistic precedent of Latin, where the infinitive is one word, as it continues to be in languages such as French and Spanish. By contrast the English equivalents can in fact be either a zero infinitive, one word, or an infinitive accompanied by the preposition ‘to’. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was argued that it was improper or ungrammatical to insert anything, but usually an adverb, in between ‘to’ and the infinitive form.

Let me just check that you are all still awake.

However, and importantly, this so-called rule has been waning for some time. Indeed, back in 2017, The Guardian claimed that the split infinitive was no longer a mistake, and that instead the key thing was – and yes, the Guardian had immediate recourse to Star Trek – ‘to boldly go for it’ and split your infinitives wherever you feel like it.

So, what this grammar lesson tells us is that rules can be a matter of opinion. It tells us that opinions vary over time and that views change. These are salutary things to keep in mind: innovation, challenge, and restyle are all so essential to enable us… well to enable us indeed to boldly go.

As we have already suggested, moreover, to boldly go where no man has gone before has other things that are contestable in it. It evokes a form of heroic masculinity and in its first incarnation had an overtly colonising ethos, as it took a way of seeing, symbolised by the Starship Enterprise, into unexplored galaxies where all sorts of other beings were likely to lie in wait, needing to be dealt with.

But all that said, there was and remains something exciting and gloriously adventurous about the phrase, and it is something which today you should feel has a resonance for you. You are about to embark on a whole new journey, a new expedition, in your life; you will undoubtedly meet people with ways of seeing and being and doing that you regard as alien or other, challenging or disturbing. A key thing here is not to close those people down. They have things to say to you; and, they will say them. You don’t have to agree and you may want fulsomely to express that, but it is incredibly valuable across a long life to listen and reflect. No one has all the answers; indeed, when we watch Star Trek now from a distance, that is what we may well think. However, we need to be prepared to recognise that that observation applies to ourselves as well.

And, of course, you will also meet people with ways of seeing and being and doing that are fabulously exhilarating, life enhancing, and enriching, and which enable you or others to bring change in ways that offer hope and opportunity to others. We encourage our students to be enterprising, so I would encourage you to get on board that starship when it comes. In my view, the great English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking summed up the essence of this: his screen saver read ‘To boldly go where Star Trek fears to tread’. That is what we want for you, and what you should want for yourselves.

Your time at university has equipped you to go boldly. You have journeyed through a lot, including the pandemic; you have achieved so much and that has brought you here today; you have learned a great deal, about your subject, yourself, and about other cultures and ways of seeing. In this life you should never stop learning. Some people will leave this auditorium knowing about split infinitives for the first time. And please never stop being willing to embrace change if it makes sense. This address has been my own way of changing my mind and embracing the split infinitive; my greater hope is that for you it captures the power of zestfully and hopefully going boldly.

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