What the inauguration can teach us about verbs.
Today's topic is how a verb and an adverb messed up the inauguration.
Was There a Grammar Mistake in the Inauguration of President Obama?
I took a break from work Tuesday to watch Barack Obama's inauguration, and like millions of other people, I saw a bit of confusion between Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama during the oath of office. Roberts started reading the oath for Obama to repeat: "I Barack Hussein Obama." And then there was a problem. Obama started to repeat him at the same time Roberts started to give the next part of the oath: "do solemnly swear." Roberts seemed a little unsettled and then put the adverb "faithfully" in the wrong place in the next part of the oath. Obama seemed to know it was wrong, paused, and seemed to urge Roberts to try again. Roberts got it right the second time, but Obama repeated it the incorrect way Roberts had said it the first time.
Here's what it sounded like:
There are two grammar issues going on with the misplaced "faithfully": modifier placement and verb splitting.
The first question is does it change the meaning of the sentence to put the adverb "faithfully" at the end of the sentence instead of right before the word "serve"? Does it matter whether Obama swore that he would faithfully execute the office of the president or would execute the office of the president faithfully? Just looking at the meaning of the sentence, it doesn't matter. It means the same thing whether the adverb is right before the verb or at the end. Some grammarians say it's better to put the modifier directly before the verb (1), so they would prefer "to faithfully execute," but it's more of a style issue than a hard-and-fast rule.
Sometimes a modifier at the end of the sentence can impart a surprising meaning, although that isn't the case with the oath. But imagine an oath where someone swore to uphold the office of the president secretly or humorlessly. It would be weird to hear someone say they would humorlessly uphold the office of the president, but it would pack more of a surprising punch if the oath taker said he would uphold the office of the president humorlessly. You'd hear that "humorlessly" at the end and you'd probably do a double take, thinking "What did he just say." So placing a modifier at the end of a sentence is a stylistic tool you can sometimes use to achieve surprise in your writing.
I think it's an interesting side note that although the mixed up oath didn't have an altered meaning, and the U.S. Constitution doesn't seem to require the new president to take the oath (2), Roberts and Obama went through the oath a second time in front of a small group of reporters to make sure no legal problems would arise from their flub. But back to grammar.
The second topic we can think about is verb splitting. Most of you have probably heard of the grammar myth that you can't split infinitives. It's a myth, and if you haven't heard it or disagree, you can check out Grammar Girl Episode 9.
Now if Obama were promising to faithfully execute the office, then "faithfully" would be splitting the infinitive "to execute." But the exact phrasing of the oath isn't "to faithfully execute," instead it's "I will faithfully execute the office." So it's not a split infinitive because there's no "to." It's called a split verb phrase, but the concept is exactly the same as a split infinitive and it's OK to do it, just as it's OK to split an infinitive. The verb phrase is "will execute." "Will" is an auxiliary verb. To say you will faithfully execute uses the word "faithfully" to split the verb phrase "will execute."
The famous psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker had an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he noted that even though it's not against the rules to split a verb phrase, Chief Justice Roberts has shown a tendency in past writings to avoid it (3). I want to stress that it's not a rule (4); it's fine to split verb phrases, but it seems as if Roberts thinks it's a rule, and Pinker speculates that when Roberts was thrown off by the interruption, he rephrased the oath in his head to fit his view of how sentences should be written.
We'll never really know what was going through Obama's and Roberts' heads during the inauguration. The bottom line is that it's fine to split verb phrases, but some people -- powerful people like the Chief Justice -- think it's not. It's just like splitting infinitives and other grammar myths: If you're going to do it, you should be prepared to defend yourself.
So, who would have thought that the inauguration would lead to an interesting grammar discussion? Grammar pops up everywhere. If you want to go on a hunt, Dianne Feinstein also made a small gaffe that jumped out at me during the inauguration, but I can't find a video of it anywhere. I think it was during the transition between music and Obama's speech, but I'm not certain.
I'm Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, which is available where all fine books are sold. If you like this podcast, you might also enjoy my free email newsletter which contains weekly grammar tips.
1. "Modifier Placement" The Guide to Grammar and Writing. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/modifiers.htm (accessed January 22, 2009).
2. Morrison, P. " Chief Justice Roberts gives the oath of office. Really?" Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2009, http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2009/01/chief-justice-r.html (accessed January 22, 2009).
3. Pinker, S. "Oaf of Office." New York Times, January 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/opinion/22pinker.html?_r=1&em (accessed January 22, 2009).
4. O'Connor, P., "The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone," Grammarphobia.com, http://www.grammarphobia.com/grammar.html (accessed January 22, 2009).
Cite This Article
Fogarty, Mignon. “Splitting Verbs.” Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (accessed Jan. 22, 2008). <http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/splitting-verbs.aspx>.