Obama Takes Oath Again: The AP has the scoop.

Miss Thistlebottom Strikes Again: Fear of the Bogus Rule Against "Split Verbs" Mars Oath of Office.

In the President's Oath of Office, the Constitution used the normal placement for an adverb -- "I . . . do SOLEMNLY swear" and "I will FAITHFULLY execute."

Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage (the 1960s version edited by Barzun, not the book of the same name by Garner) sets out what has been the standard practice in English for centuries:

"With a compound verb--that is, one made with an auxiliary and a main verb--the adverb comes between auxiliary and main verb . . . . "

Because of the bogus rule against split verbs, many modern writers move the adverb from its idiomatic place in the midst of a multiple word verb to earlier or later in the sentence.

That is what Chief Justice Roberts unconsciously did when he moved the word FAITHFULLY to later in President Obama's oath of office.

OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

ROBERTS: ... that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...

OBAMA: ... that I will execute...

ROBERTS: ... faithfully the office of president of the United States...

OBAMA: ... the office of president of the United States faithfully...

I discussed split verbs in Fear of Writing, 78 Cal. L. Rev. 1677 (1990), my playful review of the sixth edition of the Texas Law Review Manual of Style:

Unquestionably, the most dangerous advice in the old fifth edition of the Texas Manual was its disapproval of split verbs: "Avoid splitting verb phrases with adverbs . . . . " In other words, don't place an adverb between the parts of a compound verb. Yet Fowler and Follett (both praised in the Foreword to the Texas Manual) argued that the normal place for an adverb is in the midst of a multiple word verb. Thus the fifth edition of the Texas Manual seemed to have gotten the rule backwards. It prohibited what the experts recommend.

This nonsensical rule against split verbs has caused entire volumes of law reviews to be filled with page after page in which adverbs have been squeezed out of their normal place. Most law professors who have dealt with law reviews recently seem either to have had disputes about the placement of adverbs or, worse, to have adopted the Texas approach, the approach of people who write as if English were a second language. It's frightening to think that the ability of a generation of law professors to recognize their native language has been damaged by one silly book. Before picking up the Texas Manual in 1987, I had noticed that the ability of the law reviews to place adverbs correctly had deteriorated, but I hadn't known the reason.

What was particularly ridiculous about the Texas Manual's rule was that the Manual itself repeatedly split verbs in violation of its own rule, a fact that somehow eluded law review editors policing my prose. The only discursive prose in the entire Manual, a four-paragraph Foreword by Charles Alan Wright, contained six split verbs, for example, "their thought can best be expressed." The Foreword isn't the only place where the fifth edition violated its own rule. Split verbs were common in its text. I found fifteen violations in just four pages, for example, "what has already been said." The new sixth edition of the Texas Manual has greatly softened its rule against split verbs. It now states:

Splitting verb phrases with adverbs is permissible if the adverb modifies the verb and not some other part of the sentence.

Note that the Texas Manual doesn't say that split verbs are normal or preferable, language it uses to recommend other constructions. Rather, it says that split verbs are permissible. I get the impression that the authors are consciously lowering their standards by permitting but not recommending split verbs. It would have been better if they had admitted their mistake, published an errata sheet for the fifth edition, and begged the academy to forgive them. But the new rule leaves the status of the old rule in doubt. Are split verbs still suspicious constructions in Texas? I think so. The change from the strict old rule is substantial, but given the fifth edition's culpability for the old rule, some effort should have been made to clarify the Texas Manual's current position. Are split verbs preferable or just permissible?

A much better approach would have been to explain the normal placement of adverbs, as Fowler and Follett do. Follett offers a clear statement of the usual practice for the placement of adverbs. His third rule is: "With a compound verb--that is, one made with an auxiliary and a main verb--the adverb comes between auxiliary and main verb . . . . " Follett goes on to lament the loss of "instinct about the rhythms of the mother tongue."

You can perhaps begin to see the superiority of the other book under review here, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, from Webster's discussion of the folklore of the split verb:

Copperud 1970, 1980 talks about an erroneous idea widespread among newspaper journalists that adverbs should not separate auxiliaries from their main verbs (as in "you can easily see" or "they must be heartily congratulated"). This bugaboo, commentators agree, seems to have sprung from fear of the dread split infinitive. Copperud cites five commentators on the subject, all of whom see no harm in placing an adverb between the parts of a verb, and one of whom (Fowler 1965) prescribes such placement. Fowler (under position of adverbs) has a long and detailed discussion, complete with numerous examples in which the adverb has been improperly (to his mind) shifted so as to avoid the split. Since dividing the auxiliary from the verb with an adverb has been approved at least since Lindley Murray 1795, it would seem that Fowler is justified in calling the avoidance a superstition. [FN48]

There it is. The fear of split verbs is a superstition borrowed from some misinformed newspaper journalists. Respected commentators since 1795 are unanimous in finding it proper.

My reference to Miss Thistlebottom is, as I explained in 1990, an image coined by Theodore Bernstein:

The phenomenon that gives rise to such nonsense as the Texas Manual has been well understood by grammarians. H. W. Fowler was content to call such views "fetishes" or "superstitions." Theodore Bernstein gave them their most colorful term, Miss Thistlebottom's hobgoblins. For Bernstein, the disapproving schoolmarm, Miss Thistlebottom, represented a composite of the type of person who cared very much about good usage, but didn't know it when she saw it. She had a list of supposed infelicities (probably called "pet peeves") that had been inherited mostly from an oral tradition.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Whelan Responds to Pinker:
  2. Harvard Psychologist Pinker on Split Verbs.
  3. Miss Thistlebottom Strikes Again: Fear of the Bogus Rule Against "Split Verbs" Mars Oath of Office.
  4. Obama Takes Oath Again:

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.


Whelan Responds to Pinker: Ed Whelan responds to Steven Pinker's split-verb theory of Chief Justice Roberts' mistaken recitation of the presidential oath here:
. . . In a New York Times op-ed today, Pinker speculates that Chief Justice Roberts's "habit of grammatical niggling" explains his flubbing of the presidential oath. In particular, Pinker supposes that Roberts embraces the "split-verb myth", which would bar insertion of an adverb between an auxiliary verb (e.g., "will") and the main verb (e.g., "execute").

I agree with Pinker that the split-verb myth (as well as its subsidiary rule against split infinitives) is unsound. But Pinker offers no evidence that Roberts in fact embraces the split-verb myth. And a quick review of one of his written opinions—where any niggling is more likely to manifest itself—indicates that Roberts doesn't. In his Seattle School opinion, for example, Roberts writes of "an injury that the members of Parents Involved can validly claim on behalf of their children" and of "a heavy burden that Seattle has clearly not met" (as well as lots of instances where "are" and other variants of "to be" are functioning as auxiliaries). Indeed, in summarizing the argument of one party, Roberts writes, "Parents Involved members will only be affected if their children seek to enroll in a Seattle public high school", when the meaning would be clearer in this instance if he had not split the verb: e.g., "Parents Involved members will be affected only if their children seek to enroll in a Seattle public high school."

Indeed, Pinker's only supposed evidence that Roberts, a graceful writer, has a general "habit of grammatical niggling" is Roberts's presumably inadvertent misquote of a Bob Dylan line. . . .