Phi Beta Cons

Survival of the Flubbers

Harvard’s Steven Pinker has a ridiculous article today on why Chief Justice Roberts flubbed giving the inaugural oath to Barack Obama. Pinker is referring of course to the moment when Roberts, although a stickler for the Constitution, put the adverb “faithfully” at the end of the phrase–”will execute the office of [Roberts said ‘to,’ another error] President of the United States faithfully”–rather than after the auxiliary verb, as the Constitution has it–”will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.” Pinker says this happened because Roberts was unconsciously following the Texas Law Review manual, which states that one must not split infinitives or verbs, the latter in the case when there is an auxiliary or helping verb, as in “will execute.”
I do not know what the Texas Law Review manual states, and it is true that there is a rule against split infinitives, increasingly flouted today, but to my knowledge there has never been a rule against “split verbs.” It has always been possible to say in English, I will gladly come, I will come gladly, I gladly will come, and even gladly will I come and gladly I will come. The difference lies in what emphasis the speaker wishes to give and what rhetorical effect one wishes to have.
Pinker attributes those who follow the rule against the split infinitive and this new, made-up rule against “split verbs” to the phenomenon of meek people who sheepishly follow orders while the masters of the earth discard them at will.
Since he’s speculating on Roberts’s motives, one might speculate that Pinker’s silly idea comes from the mechanistic thinking that results from believing that man has evolved from random variation and natural selection. One is unable to see anything except the strong and the weak. One has no feel for the poetry of words. And one imagines people are following rules that don’t even exist.
Clearly, the oath as written is meant to emphasize the word “faithfully” by putting it right in the middle of the verb form, rather than letting it trail off at the end of the phrase.
As for Roberts, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. He had obviously memorized the oath in a certain pattern and was momentarily flummoxed when Obama jumped ahead of him by repeating his name before Roberts had finished the first phrase. Roberts should have had the oath written down in front of him for just such eventualities. Also, he might have started the whole thing again from the beginning.   


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