Sunday, January 25, 2009

Will the oath flub prompt law review editors to finally see the light on split verbs?

Steven Pinker wrote an op-ed in the New York Times* hypothesizing that Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the presidential oath of office out of a desire to unsplit the split verb in the Constitution ("will faithfully execute").

I'm glad to see that the letters in response to the op-ed are coming down on the side of split verbs:

Thank you to Steven Pinker for demonstrating that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in administering the oath of office to Barack Obama, was likely tripped up by nothing more sinister than his own pedantry.

While adverbs like “faithfully” are usually movable within a sentence, clarity is best served when they are placed as close as possible to what they modify. When they modify a verb with an auxiliary, like “will execute,” you cannot get closer than between the two.

The prohibition against split verbs (as Chief Justice Roberts would probably put it) is not necessarily so.
Another letter writer shines a spotlight on law reviews:
My thanks to Steven Pinker for his denunciation of the so-called split infinitive rule. This rule, allied with its twin barbarism called the “split predicate rule,” has especially afflicted the prose of lawyers and legal scholars.

For decades, law review articles criticizing judicial decisions have included such convolutions as “the court adequately has failed to analyze ...”
The op-ed itself also discussed law reviews:
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.”
Frankly, I'm a little surprised that so much attention is being paid to a particular type of academic journal -- law reviews -- in the popular press. Is it really the case that this practice is mostly confined to law reviews? If so, that makes it all the more ridiculous for law review editors and authors to sheepishly obey a nonexistent rule.

When I was a law review editor, I sent an email asking if we could give ourselves permission to split a verb by placing an adverb between an auxiliary verb (like "have" or "will") and the main verb. (I wasn't even going to touch split infinitives, the most reviled type of split verb.) For instance, do we write, "They can already do so," or, "They already can do so"? The answer I got back was that we should write, "They already can do so" -- that is, not split the verb -- because this makes the writing more "formal." In other words, the phrasing is so awkward that you'd never come up with it spontaneously; thus, it's well-suited to an academic journal.

* You have me to thank for providing you with this link; the fusty old Times didn't see fit to actually link to the op-ed anywhere in the page of letters responding to it.

UPDATE: A Metafilter commenter has a different theory of what was going on in Roberts's mind -- and Obama's:
[O]ne cannot execute as president without reciting the oath word-for-word. Obama voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Roberts, and this is probably his way of getting back at him. It couldn't have been that hard to read it correctly, he was reading it off a sheet of paper! This was probably to create illegitimacy in the president, but Obama, the constitutional scholar that he is, caught it and gave him a "WTF" look.