Friday, January 23, 2009

Roberts: Thou Shalt Not Split Infinitives

I've been fascinated by the whole presidential oath of office flub. Thankfully, blame has fallen on the proper party: Chief Justice John Roberts.

But could Roberts's screw-up have to do with the fact that he was performing a little impromptu copy editing of the Constitution?

That's what Steven Pinker proposes in a New York Times op-ed piece.

He says that Roberts, a "famous stickler for grammar" who has a "habit of grammatical niggling" (e.g., when quoting Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" he took out an offending "ain't"), purposefully pushed the word "faithfully" to the end of the sentence.

Why? According to Pinker, Roberts couldn’t help himself and didn’t want to commit what he considers to be a syntactical sin and utter a split infinitive aloud. (The most famous split infinitive: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." In the case of the presidential oath, the split infinitive is "I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States." There are some fanatics [not me] who believe you should never ever split an infinitive. These folks would argue that Captain Kirk -- no doubt distracted by yet another green-complexioned special lady friend -- should have said: "to go boldly..." instead, thus putting the adverb after the main verb of the sentence. BTW, another Roberts's gaff: he actually said "office of the president to the United States" rather than the correct "office of the president of the United States.")

I'm not sure if I completely buy Pinker's theory (was Roberts just nervous? did he simply not remember the oath correctly?), but it's an interesting piece. And any time the subject of the split infinitive makes news, I'm very happy.

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