Mighty Red Pen

January 26, 2009

To boldly go where no chief justice has gone before

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:10 pm
Tags: , , ,

Could Chief Justice John Roberts have flubbed the inaugural oath last week because he’s a stickler for grammar? Steven Pinker thinks so.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, “Oaf of Office,” Pinker theorizes that it was Roberts’s zest for grammatical perfection that led him to ask Barack Obama to “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully” instead of “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.”

The culprit, according to Pinker, was that old bugaboo: the split verb.

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.

It’s an interesting—if utterly fanciful—theory (unless Pinker has some kind of mind-reading abilities that we don’t all know about). In any case, readers, to split verbs or not to split verbs? That is today’s question.

Hat tip to Editrix.



  1. Split verbs? I’ve heard of people objecting to split infinitives, but – split verbs?

    As Winston Churchill once said: “We never shall surrender!”

    Comment by JD — January 28, 2009 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  2. Like JD said.
    And ever since “to boldly go …” reached terrestrial TV screens, the split infinitive has been acceptable (to my ears, anyway). And: see Byron.

    Comment by rip — January 28, 2009 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  3. Hi guys, it’s a good question and I’m glad I’m not the only one who wondered! Pinker was really specific about calling it the “split verb” and I, like you, had only heard of the “split infinitive” so I dug around a little bit. As I understand it, a split infinitive is literally that: the adverb comes in the middle of the infinitive, in this case, if the phrase had been “to execute.” Since it’s not an infinitive, but a compound verb–“will execute”–then it’s a split verb. Anyone out there who is clearer about this, please chime in.

    Either way, it’s a grammar myth that continues to be perpetuated among the more rigid of the peevologists; like you, Rip, I eschew this particular one and agree with Pinker, who writes, “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. . . . 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.”

    Comment by mighty red pen — January 28, 2009 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

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