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Roberts, Obama, and the myth of the 'split verb'

An errant adverb on the Capitol steps makes news

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Misplaced adverbs don't usually make it onto the evening news, but last week was exceptional – in many ways.

Two men who hadn't voted for each other met on the steps of the United States Capitol to make history. John Roberts, chief justice of the United States, swore in Barack Obama as president.

As even those who missed the moment live know by now, His Honor flubbed his lines.

While administering the presidential oath of office, he knocked the adverb "faithfully" loose from its constitutional place in front of "execute" and tacked it onto the end of the phrase.

Similar mistakes have happened before. But "out of an abundance of caution," as White House aides put it, Messrs Roberts and Obama reprised their roles as swearer and swearee, respectively, the next day.

Conspiracy theorists ascribed the slip to a subconscious wish for revenge on the chief justice's part against the man who, as senator, voted not to confirm him. (It's a fair guess that Roberts did not vote for Obama in November, either.)

But Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, who has single-handedly inducted Roberts into the Flubber Hall of Fame over the incident, blames Roberts's overwrought inner editor.

In a commentary full of references to "pedants" and "insecure writers," Pinker posited, "[T]he wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts's habit of grammatical niggling." The chief justice was apparently trying to avoid a split infinitive, or even anything that sounded like one, in this view.


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