Oaf of office

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jan 22 14:02:21 UTC 2009

Oaf of Office

IN 1969, Neil Armstrong appeared to have omitted an indefinite article
as he stepped onto the moon and left earthlings puzzled over the
difference between "man" and "mankind." In 1980, Jimmy Carter,
accepting his party's nomination, paid homage to a former vice
president he called Hubert Horatio Hornblower. A year later, Diana
Spencer reversed the first two names of her betrothed in her wedding
vows, and thus, as Prince Charles Philip supposedly later joked,
actually married his father.

On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame
when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently
without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama "solemnly swear that I
will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,"
Chief Justice Roberts had him "solemnly swear that I will execute the
office of president to the United States faithfully." When Mr. Obama
paused after "execute," the chief justice prompted him to continue
with "faithfully the office of president of the United States." (To
ensure that the president was properly sworn in, the chief justice
re-administered the oath Wednesday evening.)

How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word
passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy
theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was
unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama's vote against the chief
justice's confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the
wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts's
habit of grammatical niggling.

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no
basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for
centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage
manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the
Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

Among these fetishes is the prohibition against "split verbs," in
which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like "to," or an
auxiliary like "will," and the main verb of the sentence. According to
this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he
declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was "to
boldly go where no man has gone before"; it should have been "to go
boldly." Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that "I will
always love you" but "I always will love you" or "I will love you

Any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can
sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of
English phrasing. The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted
analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive
because it consists of a single word, like dicere, "to say." But in
English, infinitives like "to go" and future-tense forms like "will
go" are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to
interdict adverbs from the position between them.

Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it
found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the
arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a
critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have "internalized
the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should
be avoided," adding, "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded
so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native

In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to
conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the
"ain't" from Bob Dylan's line "When you ain't got nothing, you got
nothing to lose." On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any
instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the
Constitution by moving the adverb "faithfully" away from the verb.

President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his
speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice's hypercorrection,
then gamely repeated it. Let's hope that during the next four years he
will always challenge dogma and boldly lead the nation in new

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard and the chairman of
the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

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