January 22, 2009

So maybe Chief Justice Roberts was instinctively editing and "improving" the wording of the constitutional oath.

Steven Pinker has the theory:
How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage...? ... [A simple] explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.

Language pedants [may believe in a] 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....

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.
I clicked there from Jim Lindgren's post. Pinker's op-ed mentions Lindgren and Lindgren's famous attack on the Texas Law Review Manual on Style — which was, when Jim attacked — just begging for the mockery he inflicted on it.

It's nice to note that the Framers of the Constitution didn't fall for the "split verb" urban legend. And it's funny to think about these 2 old law review editors face-to-face over an editing issue. Both Obama and Roberts served on Harvard Law Review and must have engaged in endless discussions of various points of editing. But let's remember that Barack Obama was the president of the Harvard Law Review — that is, the editor-in-chief — while John Roberts was the managing editor. For those of you who know law reviews, that means a lot. The managing editor is typically the person with the most intense interest in the details of grammar and usage. It would be cool if we could know that when Barack Obama paused after John Roberts moved the "faithfully" that he was thinking: I can see what you're up to, you old managing editor, and I know you are wrong.

***

Apologies to all the great managing editors I have known whose knowledge of grammar and usage extends to the myths and urban legends that plague those earnest people who are trying too hard to get things right — hypercorrecting — and getting things wrong.

50 comments:

Justin said...

I had a high school English teacher (junior year) who told us that if we used a split infinitive we would automatically get a 0 on the assignment.

Sadly, she was not my worst English teacher.

rhhardin said...

An infinitive non-splitter was my first intuition.

In the first thread on it
Roberts was improving it. Probably he doesn't split infinitives either.

Bob said...

Roberts botched it, pure and simple. He should have had the oath available on a card for just that contingency, since it was probably one of the more stress-filled situations he's faced as Chief Justice.

downtownlad said...

This is one of your better posts.

Simon said...

I don't think that the fussy high school latin teachers who created the myth - the prohibition on split infinitives comes from the theory that since infinitives can't be split in latin, they shouldn't be in English either - had been invented by the time of the founding. :p My high school latin teacher was Mr. Moss, and I herein publicly apologize for slacking in his class.

When has Roberts embraced or shown "instincts toward strict constructionism," as Pinker charges?

Simon said...

Bob said...
"Roberts botched it, pure and simple."

They both made mistakes that contributed to it being botched, Bob - watch the video again. Someone - I think Victoria - came up with a perfect metaphor, of two dance partners out of sync, treading all over one another.

Cedarford said...

It was a funny flub, though the right-wing Truthers came out in full force claiming Obama was not legitimately President because he failed to make the holy incantation from the Sacred Parchment, without flaw.

When we took our Officer's Oath, we were "blessed" with a crusty old general who came to administer the Oath. We all knew the words, but the old guy wanted to pump us up and went through a series of shouted exhortations on duty, feeding your men 1st, warriors never quit, write your wife or GF daily.
By the time we raised our hands, he was red-faced, hoarse, and coughing.
He tried to say the words, we repeated some, then he started caughing hard again. And again. The female 1st lieutenant accompanying him was scared to interrupt and take over. Eventually he quit, waved his hand, and said we were all commissioned officers, God Help us all..and sat down.

One guy later questioned the propriety of the Oath, as the old crusty guy never said more than 70%, and we only repeated half of it. The OCS CO (officers candidate school commanding officer) explained it to the "patriotic dissenter".

You raised your hand, right?
"Yes."
A two-star said you had made the Oath, and were now active, serving officers of the United States of America, Right?
"Yes."
Then shut up.
"Yes, sir."
I said shut up.

EDH said...

Captain Kirk, grammarian, vindicated!

Marcia said...

"It was a funny flub, though the right-wing Truthers came out in full force claiming Obama was not legitimately President because he failed to make the holy incantation from the Sacred Parchment, without flaw."

Link, please?

I saw some people joking about it, but no one that seriously claimed the fumbled oath was a real problem.

Original Mike said...

It was a funny flub, though the right-wing Truthers came out in full force claiming Obama was not legitimately President...

Making. Crap. Up.

Provide a few links and I'll retract.

rhhardin said...

The Constitutional reading on the radio this morning was that Obama was President at noon but didn't have any presidential powers until he took the oath.

Distinctions arise to fill any gap in any system.

Original Mike said...

Obama was President at noon but didn't have any presidential powers until he took the oath.

What does that mean? He can't command the military but he gets to display the seal?

Palladian said...

"It was a funny flub, though the right-wing Truthers came out in full force claiming Obama was not legitimately President because he failed to make the holy incantation from the Sacred Parchment, without flaw."

Did they? I only heard people say that either as a joke or as lefties setting up a "right-wing Truthers came out in full force claiming Obama was not legitimately President" myth. Oh, and of course now you, but it follows as you're both a joke and a master of setting up mythological nonsense.

Simon said...

Ditto Marsha.

EDH, that's a good example. Kirk split the infinitive, telling us that the Enterprise's mission was "to boldly go" where no man has gone before. (Zefram Cochran's original speech, whence the line comes in the continuty, declined to split the infinitive, and the difference in the feel of the delivery demonstrates the magnificent flexibility of the English language.) In latin, the infinitive is one word - "to go" is "ire." Thus, you literally can't split the infinitive - it's a single word. In English, by contrast, the infinitive is composed of two words ("to go"), so it can be split, and often should be.

William said...

To all who seek perfection: please note that the quotation is not from Bob Dylan but from Kris Kistofferson's song, Me & Bobby McGee.....If Obama and Roberts served together on the Harvard Law Review, doesn't that make Obama's veto of his nomination kind of personal? There must be an interesting back story on the nature of their relationship there.

Simon said...

OriginalMike, the 20th amendment tells us when the Presidential term ends and (I flubbed this the other day and another commenter was kind enough to correct me) begins. But Article II requires the oath "[b]efore he enter on the execution of his office." The question, I would think, is whether the 20th amendment is incompatible with this requirement, and I think it is not. The President's term begins on the 20th at noon, but § 3 of the 20th amendment plainly contemplates the possibility that the term may begin without the President having been chosen (the 25th is even clearer in its assumption that a President can be in office, their term can have begun, yet they cannot exercise the powers of the office), and I think that it dovetails comfortably enough with the oath requirement. The President's term begins, but he cannot "execute" the office - exercise its powers - until the oath is taken.

commenter said...

would someone please tell me how the English infinitive added the to in front of the raw verb form. It is not so in German or Spanish or so many languages that influence the English.

rhhardin said...

Infinitive just means untensed, as opposed to finite verbs, which have tense.

A to-infinitive has a to, like, I think, German (so zu sagen, to coin a phrase).

A lovely fact about English is that the subjects of nonfinite verbs are in the objective case (``I don't like him saying that.'').

Subject of to-infinitives are marked as well with a ``for'' (``It's ugly for him to say that.'').

What's lovely is that you never know you knew that.

commenter said...

ahhh, I understand a bit more now.

why ask here when there usenet from university scholars and geocity sites turned into google answers turned into wikipedia turned into whatever tomorrow?

http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/27295.html

TMink said...

I think that it is more interesting that the first openly gay marching band (the imagination reels)took part in the parade than the oath being goofed a bit.

Trey

John Althouse Cohen said...

Apologies to all the great managing editors I have known whose knowledge of grammar and usage extends to the myths and urban legends that plague those earnest people who are trying too hard to get things right — hypercorrecting — and getting things wrong.

Interesting that you attribute this to "managing editors" and not authors. When I was a managing editor on Law Review, I made an edit that added a split infinitive because I thought it was the best way to express what the author was trying to say, and any other wording seemed to be deliberately avoiding splitting the infinitive. When I got the edit back, the author (a law professor) had written, "No split infinitive!!!" in the margins.

Also, who was it who said that student editors of law reviews make mistakes because they've been taught by law profs, just as children who misbehave are imitating their parents? And thus "the solution is not to complain about students"? Oh yeah...

Original Mike said...

but § 3 of the 20th amendment plainly contemplates the possibility that the term may begin without the President having been chosen

So who has the authority to exercise power in that case, Simon?

Original Mike said...

Oh, God. Please don't tell me Nancy Pelosi.

From Inwood said...

Funny story of pedantry.

Apparently, under a Pecksniffian grammar rule, it’s “more important”, not {more importantly”. How do I know? A pedant told me so! It’s lapidary! It’s Revealed Truth. Only it may not be.

An editor & owner of a editing firm that my wife had worked for (a real intellectualoid, loony leftist) was sending us in 2001 the “Bushism of the day”, put out by a snarky site which sometimes actually found a Bush mispronunciation, but mostly repeated oral statements transcribed on paper, in which we all would be disadvantaged. Cheap shot. But what else is new from those people.

At one point I thought that I could engage in civil argument with her but her idea of Republican/Conservative was that we starve the poor & drown puppies. That level. So I gave up.

But she sent some e-mail nonsense in which she used the single subject/plural verb construct that PC people sometimes mistakenly use to avoid “his/her”, something like the following: “a person should watch their…”.

So I e-mailed her back & said that

“I was amazed that a careful editor like you would make such a basic Grammar 101 mistake as this. Oh, wait, you’re trying so hard to be PC that you, of all people, forgot a simple grammar rule.”

Liberals-have-no-sense-of-humor-or-sense-of-shame dept: she wrote back that she hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but that in my e-mails I always wrote “more/most importantly’ when, of course, I should’ve used the grammatically correct phrase “more/most important”. She never explained why this was so & gave no cites to prove her assertion. I love it when people like her, who look down on fundamentalists, embrace a substitute for religion, in her case Good Grammar.

I replied to the effect that,

upon research, this seemed to be a newly-discovered grammar rule, rather than Revealed Truth. But, more important/importantly, I thought that she was following the crowd of Pecksniffians who love to sidebar discussions & throw their weight around over obscurantisms. In any event, I went on, assuming, for the sake of argument, that she now actually had the weight of authoritative grammar mavens on her side, an assumption based on, um, faith, my mistake then would be a grammatical one, whereas, more important/importantly, her mistake was being more concerned about being PC than being grammatically correct, a triumph of emotionalism over intellect. Shame.

She never answered. Can’t imagine why.

Cedarford said...

Simon, who is no Truther, gave the reason the Right Wing nuts at Freeperland and other places did. Because the oath was "improper" he may be President, but was not "legit" for executing the office.

Another non-Truther, Pat Buchanan was on this morning saying the Bloggers were going nuts and Pat was throwing gasoline on the fire. Pat says that if they had to do a "do-over Oath" then you can be sure the Right Wing Blogosphere that was into Obama's "secret Kenyan birth certificate" will question the legitimacy of any Executive Order or appointment between the Inauguration Oath and the "Do-Over" - and all that stuff might also need a "re-do". Buchanan was spoofing the fruitloops. And having fun at it.

He also pointed out that in the "Do-over" Obama did not use a Bible, and could possibly have a secret Qu'ran hidden on him (hoping to launch a new conspiracy theory)

From Inwood said...

Marcia

Isn't it funny that non-right "truthers" assume that the only "truthers" are on the Right & that people on the Right would act as childishly as they themselves would. That is, if the original oath had happened to a Republican President, they, you betcha, would be having a hissy fit over this substantial compliance to embarrass him.

I have not gotten any comments on this rather immaterial error, since corrected ny a mulligan oath, from my right-wing friends, since they apparently follow the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex.

Eugene said...

I think Roberts got flustered when Obama stepped on his next line--Oh crap, that's not the way I memorized it--and tried to fast-forward and lost his place. During the ritual, a couple of Designated Important People should hold up copies of the Constitution for both parties to read from.

traditionalguy said...

Remember, as Ann Coulter has pointed out, The default accusation from liberals is that conservative are mental defectives. They "see Russia from here" as foreign policy credentials and Obama's trials and tribulations as hanging offences, It just never happened. Now come to think of it, the Ron Paul cult followers are dangerous, not dumb, but dangerous and skilled liars. Ain't free speech fun?

Original Mike said...

Thanks, Cedarford. I still think you're exagerrating, but I'm not going over to Freeperland to persue it. Buchanan, from your account, is joking, which a lot of people have been doing.

I'm reserving judgement on Simon. ;)

Original Mike said...

During the ritual, a couple of Designated Important People should hold up copies of the Constitution for both parties to read from.

Well, you know what they say about Obama going off telepromter.

Would DIP be a cabinet level position?

ecrunner said...

I don't remember anyone really making a big deal about the mix up of the oath wording. Though, the fact that he did this in private as he did is curious. If I know Obama, I would have expected cameras, blogs, and live feeds all being updated via wireless internet to the second on the retaking of the oath...

Simon said...

Original Mike said...
"So who has the authority to exercise power in that case, Simon?"

One could argue - and I would - that since section 3 tells us that the new Vice President (if there is one, as there was here) will "act" as President in the event that no one has "qualified," until such time as someone has. If that's so, then the frankly terrifying answer is that Joe Biden did.

Nevertheless, your question seems to make a dangerous assumption: Don't assume that the Constitution is airtight. That it doesn't leave gaps. Framing an inquiry with the assumption that someone must be able to do something, and then asking who, is the road to a lot of mistakes, I think, in context as varied as standing and federalism.

Cedarford said...
"Simon, who is no Truther, gave the reason the Right Wing nuts at Freeperland and other places did. Because the oath was 'improper' he may be President, but was not 'legit' for executing the office."

Clarification: What I said was that although Obama's term began at noon on the 20th, Article II still precludes his execution of the office prior to taking the oath of office. I did not say or imply that I think the oath he took at a few minutes past noon on the capitol steps was invalid, which is what has supposedly been charged - in jest vel non - by some Obama critics.

Simon said...

Sorry, Mike, my first paragraph emerged from an edit horribly mangled. Hopefully the meaning came across.

Original Mike said...

Nevertheless, your question seems to make a dangerous assumption: Don't assume that the Constitution is airtight. That it doesn't leave gaps.

Oh, I don't. In fact, I assume that not only is the Constitution not airtight, but further that it is not humanly possible to make it so. It is from this believe that I think it is unwise to interpret it so tightly that a "bungled oath" is given any serious consideration (not saying that you do, Simon).

Pete said...

Great post!

I was a notes and comments editor on my law journal and was always looking for grammatical errors in the student notes I was editing. I don't remember any specific problems with split infinitives.

I bet Roberts was a stickler for grammar while a managing editor on the Harvard Law Review. I bet he also wished he could have been President/Editor in Chief.

vbspurs said...

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.”

I commented as the Oath happened, that wasn't it clever of Roberts to think on his feet, and work the vagaries of the Constitutional split infinitive by adding "to the United States" instead of "of the United States".

But I have to say, he sounds like a fussy man if he has to alter quotes that contain "ain't".

I say this as a writer, reality doesn't always need to be cleaned up, and it loses authenticity when it is.

Also, it reminds me of my English tutor, Sister Mary Margaret, who used to smack our hands with a ruler if we used British slang in class.

Slag.

Cheers,
Victoria

Jack said...

My initial thought was that perhaps Roberts was one of those people who refuse to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions. But looking at some of the decisions he has authored does not bear this theory out. There are not many examples of adverbs tucked between future tense verbs (the occasion simply does not occur frequently in legal prose) but they are there. I think this was a mistake, pure and simple, and am actually quite surprised at the amount of attention it has received.

Diamondhead said...

Most of the official lyric volumes use "when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." And if Roberts double-checked at bobdylan.com, that's what he would have found. Sure, Dylan sang the "ain't" on Highway 61, but I know for a fact that he doesn't always sing it that way. Anyway, if a slight deviation from the original raises hackles with Pinker, then I suspect he wouldn't much enjoy a Bob Dylan concert.

Simon said...

Ann (and Victoria): I think Pinker's wrong about Roberts changing Dylan. The opinion at issue is the Chief's dissent in Sprint Communications v. APCC Services. Roberts quotes the lyric as “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” - which is precisely how it appears on Dylan's own website ("When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose").

TMink said...

Trad guy wrote: "The default accusation from liberals is that conservative are mental defectives."

That is odd, I am convinced that liberalism is a mental disorder that stems from a disordered attachment history.

Trey

Simon said...

Sorry, Diamondhead, I didn't see your comment before posting mine. Maybe Pinker was instinctively editing Dylan to conform to his notions of what would make a useful point against Roberts.

Diamondhead said...

No problem, Simon. Yeah, that could be the case. The simple explanation is a slip of the tongue by a man not used to speaking in front of huge crowds. Sometimes, Pinker, a banana is just a banana.

Ralph said...

conform to his notions of grammaticality,
Ooo, someone's been to graduate school! Something wrong with "grammar?"

William, they were at Harvard at different times.

first openly gay marching band
wearing absolutely unfabulous uniforms. Black polyester pants and baggy, gray nylon jackets.

jdeeripper said...

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 niggling.

He said niggling! Haha...

The Drill SGT said...

I think I agree with C4 at some level here. I don't understand how either of them could blow the oath that badly. I bet C4 and I carry the words our oath to our graves:

I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God."

Cedarford said...

Drill SGT - I wrote at 9:39 how our ceremony went.
Great lessons learned.

1. Somethings are good enough "You raised your hands, right?" - when they happen outside the scrutiny of word-parsing lawyers.

2. When a general says it is so, it is so..

rhhardin said...

Stop the presses. The talk radio word is that the classical music was lip synched, not played live, owing to concerns about cold mistuning the instruments quickly and wind noise. So they had little earphones and made playing motions to the music.

That performance has to be done over as well.

Kev said...

[S]he sent some e-mail nonsense in which she used the single subject/plural verb construct that PC people sometimes mistakenly use to avoid “his/her”, something like the following: “a person should watch their…”.

So I e-mailed her back & said that

“I was amazed that a careful editor like you would make such a basic Grammar 101 mistake as this. Oh, wait, you’re trying so hard to be PC that you, of all people, forgot a simple grammar rule.”


Unless my work is being graded (which hasn't happened since grad school), I have no problem with using "their" in such an instance instead of "his" or "her" (which will get you bashed by the PC Police) or "his/her" (which is just plain awkward). I would be in favor of the rule being changed to accommodate this usage.

DaveW said...

I think Roberts just flubbed it.

Lord knows that if it were me standing there in front of a million people and live on national TV giving the oath to our new president...well, if I didn't faint dead away it'd be very nearly miraculous.

I thought they both handled it with aplomb, dignity and good humor. I'd be willing to bet he has profusely apologized to Obama.

I'm glad they got together later and redid it in the White house.

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