Roberts, Obama, and the myth of the 'split verb'

An errant adverb on the Capitol steps makes news

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Misplaced adverbs don't usually make it onto the evening news, but last week was exceptional – in many ways.

Two men who hadn't voted for each other met on the steps of the United States Capitol to make history. John Roberts, chief justice of the United States, swore in Barack Obama as president.

As even those who missed the moment live know by now, His Honor flubbed his lines.

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While administering the presidential oath of office, he knocked the adverb "faithfully" loose from its constitutional place in front of "execute" and tacked it onto the end of the phrase.

Similar mistakes have happened before. But "out of an abundance of caution," as White House aides put it, Messrs Roberts and Obama reprised their roles as swearer and swearee, respectively, the next day.

Conspiracy theorists ascribed the slip to a subconscious wish for revenge on the chief justice's part against the man who, as senator, voted not to confirm him. (It's a fair guess that Roberts did not vote for Obama in November, either.)

But Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, who has single-handedly inducted Roberts into the Flubber Hall of Fame over the incident, blames Roberts's overwrought inner editor.

In a commentary full of references to "pedants" and "insecure writers," Pinker posited, "[T]he wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts's habit of grammatical niggling." The chief justice was apparently trying to avoid a split infinitive, or even anything that sounded like one, in this view.

I'm not sure I buy it. But as the new president would say, let us be clear.

The presidential oath of office contains no split infinitives. Some people take issue with a phrase like "will faithfully execute" as a "split verb," but it's perfectly idiomatic English.

But careful writers do pay attention to where they place their adverbs.

Some limiting adverbs are, like that piece of cardboard you put under your tires to help get you out of an icy parking space, most helpful when they're in just the right place. For instance: "He writes mainly on environmental topics" – but also does some economic analysis. Compare: "He mainly writes on environmental topics" – but he also hosts a radio call-in show called "It's Not That Hard Being Green."

The placement of mainly helps signal whether we're contrasting topics – environment vs. economics – or activities – writing vs. hosting. (Confidential to readers gnashing their teeth at "host" as verb: I feel your pain but let's get over it. We need a transitive verb to express what a host does to a show. Host, as a verb, is the only candidate that's shown up to apply for the job.)

Placement of adverbs also helps signal emphasis.

A case could be made that the famous Star Trek motto, "To boldly go where no man has gone before," would be stronger with the adverb at the end of the clause.

Go, on its own, is a forceful verb – short, with a hard consonant and a long vowel. "On your mark, get set, go!" Can't you hear the crack of the starting pistol? Can't you just see that green light?

But modified, go loses some of its oomph. A disaficionado of adverbs might delete the modifier altogether: "to go where no man has gone before." But if Trekkies have their hearts set on "boldly," I'd vote for it after "go."

Does that mean the presidential oath would be more effective if the Founding Fathers had written it into the Constitution with "faithfully" at the end?

Hmm, let's not go there.

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