Roberts Corrects Framers’ Grammar

Via Norman Geras, I see that Steven Pinker has a plausible yet amusing explanation for Chief Justice John Roberts’ bungling of the presidential oath of office.

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.

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. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

[…]

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.

President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice’s hypercorrection, then gamely repeated it. Let’s hope that during the next four years he will always challenge dogma and boldly lead the nation in new directions.

I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s declaration that, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

AP Photo/Jeff Christensen

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. The NYT, via OTB, has an interesting explanation for the bungled swearing-in by Chief Justice Roberts. http://tinyurl.com/d2oajk

  2. sam says:

    Hmmm. To pick a nit:

    Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

    I think Whitney Houston that was…

  3. Franklin says:

    Grammatical rules like these mostly serve to distinguish the upper class from the others. While I am no cunning linguist, I have heard at least one argue that the preposition rule has no other purpose; putting one at the end of a sentence doesn’t cause any ambiguity in English (although it can in other languages like Latin).

  4. James Joyner says:

    I think Whitney Houston that was…

    She covered Dolly’s original (from the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” movie soundtrack).

  5. Michael says:

    Grammatical rules like these mostly serve to distinguish the upper class from the others. While I am no cunning linguist, I have heard at least one argue that the preposition rule has no other purpose; putting one at the end of a sentence doesn’t cause any ambiguity in English (although it can in other languages like Latin).

    Admit it, you wrote this entire post, just for the “cunning linguist” line.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Grammatical rules like these mostly serve to distinguish the upper class from the others.

    I think that’s largely right. I never really learned the rules but developed a strong feel for “what sounds right” by having read a lot in my youth.

    Some of it, though, was just the silly translation of rules from Latin without considering whether they made sense.

  7. sam says:

    She covered Dolly’s original (from the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” movie soundtrack).

    Ah.

  8. James Joyner says:

    More from Wikipedia:

    Dolly Parton wrote the song in 1973 and it was released a year later, having been produced by Bob Ferguson. She has told numerous interviewers over the years that she wrote it for her one-time partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, with whom she was having a business splitting at the time. Recorded on June 17, 1973 in RCA’s Studio “B” in Nashville, the song was included on Parton’s album Jolene, and was released as a follow-up single, after the Country chart-topping success of the title track, in April 1974. The single reached number one on the Billboard Country Singles chart a month later, but had just modest success on the pop charts. The lyrics express a bittersweet and poignant ode to an ex-lover, and are delivered with Parton’s distinctive twang.

    Parton re-recorded the song in 1982 to include it on the soundtrack to the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

    […]

    In 1991, singer Whitney Houston recorded the song for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, her film debut. Houston was originally to record Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” as the lead single from The Bodyguard. However, when it was discovered the song was to be used for Fried Green Tomatoes, Houston requested a different song and her co-star Kevin Costner brought her Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 version of “I Will Always Love You” from her album Prisoner in Disguise. Houston re-arranged the song as a soul ballad.

    So, it was actually a cover of a cover of a cover!

  9. Barry says:

    “She covered Dolly’s original (from the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” movie soundtrack).”

    And IMHO, better than Dolly. Dolly didn’t have the vocal range.

  10. just me says:

    I completely disagree with Barry-Dolly’s version is by far the best. I never liked Whitney Houston’s.

  11. Franklin says:

    Admit it, you wrote this entire post, just for the “cunning linguist” line.

    I will admit only to stealing that phrase.

  12. I was actually going to post on Big Bag on this very topic. Then I thought, nah, nobody cares about this. But, obviously I was wrong. D’oh! My first thought at noon-plus was, “Split infinitive! What were the framers thinking?” I had a poli sci prof at Middlebury who was a stickler for such things. I wonder what he thought.

  13. jukeboxgrad says:

    Roberts made another small error that no one seems to have noticed. He didn’t say “do.”