Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Taking the Oath of Office... Faithfully

Last night an unusual event happened at the White House. Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama, a day and a half after they had performed the same ritual rather shakily in the inaugural ceremony. White House counsel Gregory B. Craig explained: "We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. But the oath appears in the Constitution itself, and out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time."

What was that one out-of-sequence word? Faithfully.

Justice Roberts misplaced the word faithfully when stating the official oath, which asks the president-elect to swear that he "will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States." Faithfully got removed from the spot between will and execute in Roberts' rendering, moved to the end of the clause. Then, when Obama hesitated, Roberts tried again, placing faithfully immediately after execute. Obama ended up saying it the first (wrong) way, with faithfully at the end. (For a fuller analysis, see my post-inaugural piece on Language Log. To my surprise, this technical linguistic treatment was picked up by everyone from Andrew Sullivan and AOL News to The Guardian and The Telegraph.)

On the op/ed page of the New York Times, linguist Steven Pinker hazards a guess as to why Justice Roberts, working without any written prompts, ended up removing faithfully from its rightful place in the Constitution's phrase "will faithfully execute." Roberts is famous for being a grammatical stickler, and during the administration of the oath "his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb 'faithfully' away from the verb."

But why would his "inner copy editor" do such a thing? As Pinker explains, grammatical prescriptivists have long had a problem with "split verbs" — the placement of an adverbial modifier between an infinitive or auxiliary and the main verb in a sentence. This gripe is most widely recognized in the "rule" against split infinitives, a notion that arose out of trying to make English grammar conform to the model of Latin. (In Latin, the infinitive form of a verb is unsplittable, because it's a single word.)

Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania has investigated the similar injunction against placing an adverb between an auxiliary and a verb — exactly what would make Roberts uneasy about saying "will faithfully execute." It's a pet peeve among law review editors, so a young John Roberts was very likely exposed to it during his legal training. (Like President Obama, Roberts was once editor of the Harvard Law Review.) Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre has noted that this thinking pervades newsrooms too, despite the fact that enforcing the rule can lead to phrasing that sounds unidiomatic:

I'm particularly irritated by the journalistic taboo against putting an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb — writing always has written instead of has always written. It is not, strictly speaking, an error of grammar, but it is awkward and non-idiomatic syntax. If I have time to change it while editing, I do so, and no one has ever complained. (And if you read over has ever complained just now without finding it amiss, you see how idiomatic English is written.)

If Pinker is right about the mental editing that Justice Roberts performed on the fly, then it is of course deeply ironic for such a "strict constructionist" to amend the Constitution under the influence of what Stanford University's Arnold Zwicky has aptly named a "zombie rule." Roberts, however, owned up to his mistake at a luncheon following the inaugural ceremony, and the wheels were soon set in motion for a "do-over" to ensure that the constitutional mandate was properly followed. We can all now rest assured that the administration of the oath has been executed faithfully — and faithfully executed.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday January 22nd 2009, 7:05 AM
Comment by: William C. (Columbia, MD)
Thanks, Ben. I can finally understand this. Oops, I mean . . . I can understand this, finally . . . but what if I wanted to ask: Do I really understand it . . . or is it: Do I understand it, finally . . . I mean really.
Thursday January 22nd 2009, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Why do I feel like a certain 80s power ballad from Journey should be playing in the background of this post?

What I find ironic is how unfaithfully the oath was recited. And that is just the base-level irony -- I won't even get into the deeper irony that could be explored should we rope in the hoopla generated during the campaign around Obama's own faith!

Also, did anyone notice Obama's super-grin when he heard Roberts' mis-ordering of the text of the oath? When watching live, I simply presumed that the ObamaSmile was that of, "uh uh, I already forgot what he said." I was presuming this whole flub was Obama's doing.

But soon after, thanks to Ben and his instant analysis on inauguration day, I realized that this was Roberts' mishap. When I went back to watch it again, that same ObamaSmile has a whole new meaning... that of, "heh... you really screwed up, John! But I'll try to save you by mapping to your personal rendition of the oath."

If Obama had not done the responsive-mapping of the mis-ordered oath, would that have been better or worse than what he actually ended up doing?
Thursday January 22nd 2009, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Lois M.
Jon, I read Obama's grin in the moment as a "yikes! you're throwing me!" grin because the oath as Roberts read it sounded off to me. In the broad sweep of history, of course, it won't matter (one trusts) who goofed; in the meantime, it's made for some interesting video editing choices for media people. I hope that the discussion of the muff has been wide enough for conspiracy theorists not to be able to use it in some way to imply that Obama is less than authentic as our new president--or flawed in some way for not delivering the oath smoothly.
Thursday January 22nd 2009, 8:25 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I too must admit to thinking it was Obama's fault, but the grin was out of place anyway.

Regarding the 'split verb', I was certain there was some rule about adverbs called intensifiers. These have to be placed right next to the verb they are intensifying. That would be the case with the 'always'.

I also think that when we speak, we do this naturally, especially if we have a 'sense of grammar'.

I'll just bet (not bet just or I just will bet) that when the situation requiring an intensifier (there might be a proper name for that word that I've forgotten since I stopped teaching grammar) arises, the good Justice places where it should be.

I think this exercise might be subtitled accurately: Don't issue the oath without the script!
Friday January 23rd 2009, 2:28 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
We were told repeatedly (repeatedly told?) to watch our grammar in law school and often reminded that the Founding Fathers were masters of the language. It is refreshing to know that the Constitution's drafters didn't always get it quite right.
Friday January 23rd 2009, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
"Told repeatedly' would be 'my' correct version. 'Repeatedly' wouldn't be what I'd have called an 'intensifier'. (Grinning here!) With that expression, you do need the verb first to clearly understand the sentence.

I'll have to figure out why I placed 'clearly' before. I did think about it, and it should be before.

Isn't there a grammarian out there with a hard and fast rule for the placement of adverbs? With some of them, as with adverbial phrases, it doesn't matter. With others, it does seem to do so.
Friday January 23rd 2009, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I found a reference to those intensifiers. Whether or not it fits the placement of faithfully in the constitution, I'm not sure.

This is the quote from the 'brighthub' website:

Define adverb and instruct students to copy the definition in their notebook and at the top of their rough drafts, if necessary. An adverb modifies verbs, adjective, or other adverbs. They answer the questions where, when, how, and to what extent. A special kind of adverb, called an intensifier, defines the degree of an adjective or another adverb. Intensifiers always precede the adjective or adverb it modifies (Definitions courtesy of Grammar Usage and Mechanic Book, McDougall Littel, 2007. p. 16). Common examples of intensifiers include very, somewhat, quite, rather...
Friday January 23rd 2009, 12:24 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
By McDougall Littel, it would seem the Constitution had it right. Especially if "somewhat" qualifies as an intensifier. "I swear that I will somewhat execute the office of President of the United States."
Friday January 23rd 2009, 9:36 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Along that line, why doesn't the "rule" about never ending a sentence with the preposition for the infinitive seem to have dropped out of present usage?
Saturday January 24th 2009, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Some expressions in English, 'put up with' is one example, end with prepositions. Winston Churchill used that expression to illustrate just how awkward that rule could be. If memory serves me correctly, "This is a situation up with which I shall not put," was his example of what one might have to say.

Questions in English often seem to require a preposition to end them. "What are you fishing for?"

Perhaps in some cases, the preposition is more accurately a part of the verb.

I think, however, that the 'ending a sentence with a preposition' rule is like the spliting infinitives, something not to be taken too literally, or too faithfully.
Saturday January 24th 2009, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
We could almost move along here to why it is so common now to hear "between you and I" or "to you and I". The latter is a good choice for 'proving' the reason for 'me'. If one says 'give it to me..' the 'me' is an obvious choice. There is no need to switch to the subjective case (if case still exists) after the conjunction 'and'. Yet, it is so very commonly done.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 10:38 AM
Comment by: A. Z.
Fantastic!
Tuesday January 4th 2011, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Carolyn .
It was obvious to me that Justice Roberts had mistated the oath, and that the President-elect, was aware of it. The most polite gesture was a smile and a pause to allow the Justice to restate the sentence.

I edit training courses, and develop curriculum, and I automatically change the position of the adverb in the sentence most of the time because it sounds awkward. Although sometimes it is warranted because the adverb puts emphasis on the verb as intended by the context.

I also agree with Jane B. It's a commonly done though incorrect.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

"Czars" are proliferating in the Obama administration.
How "measuring the drapes" became emblematic of political hubris.
Obama ran into trouble calling a reporter "sweetie."