[ExI] Grammar Gestapos

John K Clark jonkc at bellsouth.net
Thu Jan 22 18:19:38 UTC 2009

January 22, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor New York Times

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 

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 always."

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 

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 speech."

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 directions.

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