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Harvard Psychologist Pinker on Split Verbs.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who is the chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, quotes me in an op-ed in today's New York Times. His topic isplit verbs, which I discussed below.

Pinker writes in the Times:

Oaf of Office

On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama "solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States," Chief Justice Roberts had him "solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully." When Mr. Obama paused after "execute," the chief justice prompted him to continue with "faithfully the office of president of the United States." . . .

How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? 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.

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. . . .

Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have "internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided," adding, "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech."

Note that the Texas Manual had softened it rule by 1990, which I noted in my review years ago.

Brett:
Speaking of grammatical shibboleths that have consumed the minds of lawyers -- I think I may set on fire the next person who tells me that the use of the passive voice is an unqualified evil, particularly if the individual making that ridiculous claim is unable to distinguish between the passive voice and an active use of a "to be" form verb.
1.22.2009 4:51am
ERH:
I think the split verb is the bastard son of the split infinitive, which itself is bogus because of its origins in latin grammar.
1.22.2009 7:22am
lonetown (mail):
"His topic isplit verbs, which I discussed below."

isplit?

usplit!
1.22.2009 7:26am
Bruce_M (mail) (www):
Adding extraneous, unnecessary, extra-Constitutional praises to a religious deity ("So help you god?" ... "So help me god") is a far worse offense than anything one could ever do to a simple verb.
1.22.2009 8:11am
Randy R. (mail):
What IS it about these people that they have nothing better to do than pore over silly rules like this? Maybe it's a form of 'grammer derangement syndrome.'
1.22.2009 8:31am
Randy R. (mail):
I was hoping that as a psychologist, he would be able to shed light on what sort of anal rententive person likes to say 'gotcha' when he or she sees a split verb.
1.22.2009 8:32am
Hannibal Lector:
Bruce_M

Adding extraneous, unnecessary, extra-Constitutional praises to a religious deity ("So help you god?" ... "So help me god")

George Washington did this spontaneously at his first inauaguration. It's been the custom ever since.
1.22.2009 8:47am
corneille1640 (mail):

Speaking of grammatical shibboleths that have consumed the minds of lawyers -- I think I may set on fire the next person who tells me that the use of the passive voice is an unqualified evil, particularly if the individual making that ridiculous claim is unable to distinguish between the passive voice and an active use of a "to be" form verb.

Yes! As an undergrad I had a creative writing instructor who defined "passive voice" as "anything using the word 'to be.'" She was a good instructor, and I understand that she gave the "definition" to simplify things, but it rankled me to no end.

@Randy R.: yes, it's sad that I have nothing better to do than to comment on a niggling point of style. I am to be shamed on!
1.22.2009 9:23am
corneille1640 (mail):

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style

Maybe I'm reading the cited article too closely, but the decision to not split verbs is an aesthetic choice, and thus has some basis in style, if not logic. I'm not prepared to undyingly defend it as a choice, though.
1.22.2009 9:25am
Eric Muller (www):
This piece, in a part that you didn't quote, listed Neil Armstrong's "man/mankind" distinction as one of the famous flubs.

I think that was an error, though, and one the Times should have picked up before publishing. Didn't Armstrong say, "That's one small step for *A* man, one giant leap for mankind?"
1.22.2009 9:28am
Collin Udell (mail) (www):
Nice to finally find some support for what I have always thought to be so -- I enjoy the occasional split verb!
1.22.2009 9:35am
Eric Muller (www):
Confirmation that Neil Armstrong's "man/mankind" sentence was not a flub: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5398560.stm
1.22.2009 9:38am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Pinker is an expert on language, but his mind-reading is no better than any other mortal's. He likes to kick conservatives when he can, so he speculates on motive in order to bring up things he has disliked about Roberts. There are always a dozen possible explanations for a verbal flub - Pinker chooses the one that suits his need and attributes it to Roberts.

I recently noted at my own site that Pinker seems unable to restrain himself from injecting his political opinions into his discussions of language and thought. I wonder what that means?
1.22.2009 10:12am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
It's not about whether split infintives are grammatical. It's about whether it's important to recite the oath as it appears in the constituion, or whether it's ok to say whatever you feel like as long as it means the same thing. I doubt the chief was trying to be a grammar nazi; the simpler expanation is that he screwed up. Obama retook the oath later anyway, so problem solved.
1.22.2009 10:22am
mooglar (mail):
Hannibal Lector:


George Washington did this spontaneously at his first inauaguration. It's been the custom ever since.


Not so much. No one is sure when it began. But a contemporary transcription of Washington's oath doesn't have it. The first time we know "under God" was added was in the late 1800s.
1.22.2009 10:26am
Gerard Harbison (mail) (www):
Ordinarily I agree with Pinker about split infinitive, but I think he's out to lunch on this. The objection to split infinitives is far more common than the 'rule' that adverbs cannot come between auxiliary verb and verb; frankly, I'd never heard of the latter.

Roberts has frequently interposed words and even entire phrases between auxiliary and verb. See for example

GONZALES. v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE UNIAO DO VEGETAL

"the Federal Government may not, as a statutory matter, substantially burden a person's exercise of religion"

RUMSFELD, v. FORUM FOR ACADEMIC
AND INSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, INC

"a nonmilitary recruiter would also be denied access"

" We have also in a number of instances limited the government's ability"

I think it's far more likely that Obama's initial recitation of the oath in synchrony with Roberts threw the latter off.
1.22.2009 10:50am
Allan L. (mail):
How could a compound verb become negative in a way that English speakers would accept, if the verb elements were divided not?
1.22.2009 10:56am
gasman (mail):

Oaf [sic] of Office

I thought his term ended at noon Tuesday.
1.22.2009 11:12am
sarah elliott (mail):
ohmygosh...so as not to use a deity...(let me say "here,here..." to Bruce)...please, get a life!
talkin' all around the fact of the matter---about grammatical errors?? pa-leeeeeeez folks! classic avoidance!---anything to avoid talking about what was really happening at that moment! A white male having to give up the power of the U.S.A. and virtually the world to a man of color!! I SAW IT! YOU SAW IT! THE FREAKIN' WORLD SAW IT! NOW ADMIT IT and keep it from happening again! time to come outta' the closet. [i'm sure you will enjoy thrashing my disuse of caps...like THAT'S going to make me unhappy for a minute!]
1.22.2009 11:19am
PeterWimsey (mail):
>Confirmation that Neil Armstrong's "man/mankind" sentence was not a flub: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5398560.stm

Well, maybe. I've been skeptical of Ford's work analysis since it came out, and I'm still skeptical. You can listen to the original audio here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11. I really don't think that there is enough time between "for" and "man" for "a" to have been said. But YMMV.
1.22.2009 11:51am
Joanie Abalone:
how about that "solemnly swear" declaration? exactly how much solemnity is constitutionally required? how is it measured? obama smiled at the first swearing ... how solemn is that?
1.22.2009 12:05pm
My Middle Name Is Ralph:

George Washington did this spontaneously at his first inauaguration. It's been the custom ever since.


Apparently, whether Washington started this tradition or not is a matter of historical dispute.
1.22.2009 12:14pm
UTlawhorn:
To be titular correct, the book is actually named Texas Law Review Manual on Usage & Style. We always just called it MoUS.

http://www.utexas.edu/law/publications/isbn/mous10_info.html
1.22.2009 12:21pm
My Middle Name Is Ralph:

I doubt the chief was trying to be a grammar nazi; the simpler expanation is that he screwed up.


No doubt it was an unintended mistake. The point of the article, however, was that on some subconscious level, Roberts erred because of an ingrained commitment to a mistaken rule of grammar. I'm skeptical of this explanation too. But, it might be interesting to look at opinions written by Roberts to see if he uses split verbs and split infinitives.
1.22.2009 12:24pm
UTlawhorn:
Actually, that should "titularly correct", shouldn't it :-)
1.22.2009 12:24pm
UTlawhorn:
and that should read "that should be 'titularly correct" . . . hmmm, maybe I should be a copy.
1.22.2009 12:26pm
Smallholder (mail) (www):
Blind adherence to grammatical rules is:

Nonsense, up with which, I will not put.
1.22.2009 12:33pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Split verbs have been used through the entire history of the English language, for as long as we have manuscript evidence. They are found in Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

To the grammar nazis out there, I say "Bring back all five noun cases!"
1.22.2009 12:35pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
(I bet most grammar nazis can't name the five noun cases in Old English.)
1.22.2009 12:36pm
TRE:
Roberts didn't even misquote Dylan. "When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose." is found in Dylan recordings.

Additionally I thought Pelosi said "Oaf of Office."
1.22.2009 1:09pm
EMG19:
I believe that some of Roberts's grammatical quirks are discussed in this interview with Bryan Garner. I don't remember if those quirks include split verbs, but they may.

VIDEO
1.22.2009 1:33pm
Gerard Harbison (mail) (www):

But, it might be interesting to look at opinions written by Roberts to see if he uses split verbs and split infinitives.


It was.
1.22.2009 1:35pm
BABH:
"But a simpler explanation is [convoluted explanation]"

The simple explanation is that in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, someone who has over-rehearsed is liable to be flustered when things don't go exactly as planned.
1.22.2009 1:40pm
man from mars:
It is disturbing that the Times has sunk this low.

Pinker's theory is ridiculous for many reasons, the main one being that there is no evidence Roberts ever adhered to this rule in his own writings, and considerable evidence he does not. Moreover, the simplest explanation for the misplaced word is the one explanation Pinker does not consider - forgetfulness under stress. (Pinker proposes either the grammar rule theory or the unconcious retaliation theory).

What's sad about this episode is that the Times is now publicizing such easily falsifiable and otherwise preposterous theories. It says a lot about the media, that Pinker is given such a public platform to opine.

This goes much deeper than this one episode. It speaks to the decline in the ability of people to think critically and to select plausible from implausible explanations for events. That decline will have pernicious effects in the coming years.
1.22.2009 2:41pm
cognitis:
Before Rome pacified Gallia and Germania, Celts and Germans spoke with no inflection and with few if any tenses; in fact, both had no written language at all.
1.22.2009 3:06pm
cognitis:
This Pinker's third cited paragraph is incoherent and careless: Pinker indicates a list with commas consisting with relative pronoun "that"; but only last two clauses consist, a fact indicated by Pinker himself by his use of passive voice in only last two; for those slow, read the following list:

things that writers defy
things that manuals disavow
things that have no basis

also, Pinker uses a rare alien word, shibboleth, to describe a general idea; what is uniquely Jewish about grammar rules? He makes clear his confusion by choosing the clearly German and rare (especially his usage) word "hew", a word derived from the German "hauen". Should writers convey ideas about grammar only with words derived from one language? No, but writers who unintentionally use rare words of disparate origin show themselves to be vain and pretentious. Following, I offer my translation of Pinker's sentence:

Those who too strictly adhere to a standard of grammar have both been defied by great writers for centuries and also disavowed by thoughtful writing manuals.
1.22.2009 3:54pm
Gerard Harbison (mail) (www):
'Shibboleth' isn't a 'rare alien word'. It's in the vocabulary of most educated people. It's listed in Webster's 1828 dictionary (and of course appears in the KJV)
1.22.2009 4:03pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
>Before Rome pacified Gallia and Germania, Celts and Germans spoke with no inflection and with few if any tenses; in fact, both had no written language at all.

?Proto-germanic was inflected - I think it had 6 cases. I don't know how many tenses it had - how many do you need?
1.22.2009 4:10pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
I'm thrilled that Ed Whelan backs me up.
1.22.2009 4:17pm
cognitis:
Wimsey:

German tribes before Caesar's invasions did not speak the same language; could you refer me to the documents or original scripts, written in uniquely Germanic alphabet, containing your cited six cases?

Harbison:

Your argument, "It's in the vocabulary of most educated people" does not pertain in any way to my argument, "Pinker uses a rare alien word, shibboleth, to describe a general idea..." Firstly, the vocabulary of educated people contains rare alien words. Secondly, the use of a word taken directly from an alien language--not an American derivative--necessarily compares the subject to something unique in the alien culture. Pinker didn't refer at all to ancient Jewish culture, so his use of shibboleth was just careless and pretentious. This Pinker not only writes poorly, but he's a show-off as well.
1.22.2009 4:28pm
Der Hanh:
The even simpler explaination is the CJ got flustered when Obama started repeating the oath back before the CJ finished the first phrase.
1.22.2009 4:45pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
the CJ got flustered when Obama started repeating the oath back before the CJ finished the first phrase


It's true that Roberts got flustered when Obama started to speak. I think the issue is that they were each imagining a different definition for "first phrase." Obama was expecting Roberts to pause between "Obama" and "do solemnly swear."

And this expectation is not surprising, since that's exactly how it was done last time (2004). That CJ paused between "Bush" and "do solemnly swear." I think it's reasonable for Obama to expect that this CJ would do it the same way as the last one.

I also think the video producer had the same expectation as Obama. The camera switches to Obama instantly. This probably happened because the producer was expecting the same pause that Obama was expecting.

Roberts made another small error that no one seems to have noticed (and a bunch of the published transcripts are wrong). He didn't say "do."

2008 oath video
2004 oath video
1.22.2009 5:28pm
Bruce_M (mail) (www):
Even if Washington did add "so help me God" to the end of his oath, it was not part of the oath just a comment made afterwards. But now we have the person reading the 35 word oath of office adding "so help me God" at the end as though it IS part of the oath and must be recited. In fact, Roberts had the gall to phrase it as a question to Obama - "So help you God?" to which Obama was forced to reply, in front of the billions of people watching around the world, "[Yes,] So help me God."

It should not be part of the back-and-forth reading and recital of the Oath. If the President, after takign the oath, wants to say something else, then of course he/she has that right. But the oath of office is 35 words, not 39 words.
1.22.2009 5:30pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
Oops, I obviously labeled those videos wrong. Silly me. I meant "2005" and "2009."

Roberts had the gall to phrase it as a question


That's another difference between 2005 and 2009. In 2005 the CJ just said "so help me God." Not "so help you God?"

But I agree that it would be better if the CJ just didn't say it.
1.22.2009 6:12pm
Green Monster (mail):

I'm thrilled that Ed Whelan backs me up.



I rather like Whelan's initial theory----

In Defense of Chief Justice Roberts [Ed Whelan]


It was unfortunate and surprising that Chief Justice Roberts flubbed the presidential oath, and it was particularly odd that he used the strange locution "President to the United States." In defense of the Chief Justice, I'll note that he must still have been recovering from the shock of witnessing up close that Joe Biden—yes, that blowhard gasbag Joe Biden—had actually taken the oath as Vice President and is, God forbid, one heartbeat away from the presidency.
1.22.2009 6:31pm
Gerard Harbison (mail) (www):
Cognitis:

You mean, an alien language like Latin, French, Old Norse...?

A google search for 'shibboleth' gets approximately 760,000 hits. Funny use of the word 'rare'. If it's in every Bible on the planet, it isn't rare. Shibboleth is in fact a pretty ordinary word. It only sounds pretentious to a complete ignoramus.

But I'm violating my own rule about arguing with fools, so I'll stop.
1.22.2009 7:21pm
cognitis:
Harb:

If an anonymous internet poster showed me up, having advertised (www) myself as a "professor", I'd feel some rage too. Since you know this word's many meanings so well, tell us exactly how Pinker meant "shibboleth" to have been used. I laughed at your citing an 1828 edition of Webster's and KJV, since I could find hundreds of words from those sources considered today to be "nonstandard". Your argument anyway didn't even pertain to mine; you need to learn to read carefully before you could learn to write carefully.
1.22.2009 7:38pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
"Shibboleth" is commonly understood, isn't it? I don't consider it arcane or obscure.
1.22.2009 8:23pm
man from mars:
Harbison,

Yes, you're obviously correct. Sorry you have to put up with the attacks, it's just blog life in 2009. No recourse that I see.
1.22.2009 8:42pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Smallholder:

If we bring back grammatical inflections for noun cases, your sentence will make perfect sense! Bring back all 5!
1.22.2009 8:47pm
Bleepless:
". . . to boldly go. . . ."
1.22.2009 8:55pm
David Warner:
No Bush to kick around any more, so I guess now its Roberts for the two-minute hates.
1.22.2009 10:48pm

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