Thursday, December 31, 2009

Citibank "Commits to Improve"

It’s the last day of 2009 – a strange year, one that started with all kinds of banks collapsing, merging, converging, and coming back from the brink. It seems like the worst is over – phew! So it’s not surprising that one of the bigger banks, Citibank (and my bank, it so happens), has recently launched a new campaign to re-gain or re-affirm customer confidence. Yet I’m stuck with this thought:
Is it possible to trust a bank that can’t even get a makeover-style marketing effort grammatically correct? Here’s Citibank’s new slogan:
“We commit to improve.”  Pardon me? The Language Lady’s pen froze on her deposit slip when she caught sight of that one.
The big promotion – printed in bold blue letters against a white background – from wallet-sized cards to big posters hanging in branch windows makes a list of various worthy but vague promises like, “We promise to be there when you need us” and is summed up at the end with, “We Commit To Improve.”

Perhaps some of you readers are thinking, “So …?” But say it out loud: doesn’t it sound odd? You wouldn’t say, “We’re committing to improve,” would you? Or “We have committed to improve.” Of course not. Saying “We commit to improve” (IMPROVE, of all things!) is the verbal equivalent of trying to gain someone’s trust by holding out a filthy hand.
The slogan is wrong on so many grammatical levels:
• First, “improve” should be “improving” – that is, “We commit to improving.” Whenever we commit, we commit to some THING, and a THING falls into the “noun” category. There is a type of noun formed from the root of a verb + ing, and this is called a gerund. You can say, “We commit to better health” (better health = a thing) and thus, “We commit to improving (also a thing), though still not a great sentence. Here’s why:
• Look at that verb tense in “We commit” Anyone who read my “You Lie! (No, You’re Lying)” blog of October 5, 2009, will recall that using the present simple tense (“I speak,” “you lie,” etc.) is for facts or repeated actions. When we are in the act or process of doing something (and Citibank is in the process of improving) we use the continuous tense (“I’m speaking,” “you’re lying,” etc.) So Citibank’s saying “We commit” should contain a suggestion that they do this on a regular basis, like: “We always commit to improving;” or “We commit to improving on every Wednesday.” A “We commit” all by itself sounds as unnatural as South Carolina’s Senator Joe Wilson shouting out, “You lie!” to President Obama,; however, Language Lady readers have pointed out that Senator Wilson’s outburst was in acceptable Southern dialect -- but Citibank cannot claim the same.
• “Commit” can take the active voice when what is being committed is some external thing: “We are committing funds to this project.” But when describing a personal commitment, we use the passive voice: “I am committed to this relationship;” “she is committed to her job.” Citibank’s use of “commit” is wrong: although they are trying to convey personal commitment, they are using the wrong voice:
What Citibank meant to say was, “We are committed to improving.”
I know this year has been one of cutbacks and lay-offs. So is what happened here a case of Ed from Accounting being yanked from his cubicle to replace the recently laid-off Anne in Communications? How did this slogan fall through the editorial cracks like that? And is my money going to fall through similar financial cracks? Well??
Grammatical competence is a form of competence – and if a bank can’t be outwardly competent, then what?  It’s possible to see what’s at risk here for 2010:
Citibank’s shoddy slogan wreaks havoc with consumer confidence, and the subsequent run on the bank spurs a domino effect in the entire banking system and it’s …. 2009 all over again.

Happy New Year!!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Question of “Of”

The Language Lady is always eager to answer readers’ questions. Today, I am printing a recent question from a reader, “Danny,” in California, who wants to know about that potentially tricky word, “of”:

Danny: It's widely agreed among linguists that "of" is superfluous in phrases such as "that long OF a game" or "not that handsome OF an actor" or "too big OF a task."

The rule I derive from this is that when "of" follows an adjective in such situations, it's superfluous.

But how about when "of" follows "much," as in "it wasn't much of a game" or "too much of a challenge"? If "much" in those phrases is an adjective, does it "violate" the rule? Or is it an idiomatic exception to the rule? Or in those cases is it not an adjective at all, but a noun?

The Language Lady: The short answer to your question, Danny, is: Yes!

That is, “much,” as in “It wasn’t much of a game,” is a pronoun; more specifically, a pronoun complement, which means that “It” and “much” refer to each other. (That’s why saying, “This is she,” is correct when you answer the phone (unless you’re a guy and you say, “This is HE.”) And in the sentence, “That was not much of a game,” the prepositional phrase, “of a game,” modifies “much.”

The other sentence, “He is not that good of an actor,” is – as suspected – wrong. It should be, “He is not that good an actor.” (OR: He is not much of an actor.)

The reason is, the prepositional phrase, “of an actor” is trying unsuccessfully to modify the adjective, “good.” But prepositional phrases cannot modify adjectives – only nouns or pronouns: a street IN London; the building ON the corner, a friend OF mine, etc.

In the above sentence, “good” describes both “He” AND “actor.” (These are all subject “complements,” since they all refer to each other.) Any “of” – as you said -- would be superfluous, tacked onto the wrong part of speech.

Which is why saying, “Not that big OF a deal” is so cringe-worthy. It should either be “Not that big a deal” or “No big deal.”

If I Were in the (Subjunctive) Mood

Dear Language Lady, I’m not a language guy per se and certainly not a grammar guru, but since I do write, I am mindful of usage – past and present. I am thus curious about your take on “If I was you” vs “If I were you”. As I understand it, this is the subjunctive mood (designating contingency rather than fact) and is thus correctly stated as, “If I were you”.

The sentence “I was acting as if I were you” uses both the regular past tense and the subjunctive.

-- Gerry (Canada)

Dear Gerry –

You’re a language guy to me if you can spot your English subjunctive! I was given a thorough grounding in grammar in elementary and middle school, but I still did not learn about the English subjunctive until I took foreign languages in high school and college. Even then, “If I was you” and “If I were you” both sounded right to my ears.

The reason both are used is due to basic language change: that is, it seems that teachers stopped teaching the English subjunctive decades ago – even before they stopped teaching English grammar all together 30-plus years ago. So the older generation continued saying, “If I were you,” while the younger generation began saying, “If I was you,” since no one explained the subjunctive rules to them. And when enough people say something for a long enough period, then that too becomes standard, acceptable English – even if it still seems “wrong.” Language, as with all things, changes (alas).

The textbook, “Grammar In Use”/Intermediate by British linguist Raymond Murphy, Cambridge University Press, 2007, which I use -- and love – for my English as a Second Language students, accepts both forms. On a more grass roots level, googling “If I were you” elicits 356 million results, as opposed to “If I was you” -- and a whopping 2.6 billion! The people are clearly speaking.

For a good explanation of the English subjunctive, I recommend the site, (Click on:
This site says that “If I were you” is correct in all situations, while “If I was you” is correct in informal, familiar situations. I’d like to think so too, but “if I was” and other forgotten-subjunctive occasions appear in writing (books, articles, etc) so often, the formal and informal situations are no longer clearly defined.

Historically, English has done a lot to get rid of the subjunctive, which is why it is so hard for us native speakers to learn how to use it in other languages. Meanwhile, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, for instance, use present and past subjunctive all the time – as in “What do you want me to say?” and “I hope you’ll be surprised;” or German, along with the others, jumps in on the subjunctive bandwagon with a sentence like, “If she had more time, she would write more grammar blogs.” Portuguese even uses the future subjunctive following “if” and “when” in instances like, “If you want, we can go,” and “When you arrive, we will eat,” etc. to express a future uncertainty.

English, meanwhile, just avoids all this language subtlety by mainly sticking with verbs that sound like our regular present and past tenses: “She hopes you will like the present” and “I wished you would open it now” would both take the subjunctive in Latin languages.

The English subjunctive still hanging on in two cases: one, is with what I call business-type, more formal verbs: insist, request, demand, recommend, suggest; even there it is only visible with the 3rd person singular, as in “My boss insists that everyone BRING a laptop (not: “that everyone brings”);” or “They requested that she SIT in the corner (not: that she sits).

The subjunctive is more clearly seen in such cases with the verb, “be”:

“I ask that you BE quiet (not: ”that you are”)”; “The president suggested that all be at the meeting on time.”

The other place the English subjunctive is still hanging on (albeit by the proverbial thread) is in the hypothetical case with “if” and “as if”: “If I had a million dollars …” “as If I knew the answer …” “If /as if she understood the problem,” etc. All of these hypothetical clauses take what sounds like past tense; however, it is really the past tense (“you” form) AS the subjunctive form.

This usage is more apparent with the verb “to be” – particularly, when used in phrases like, “If I were you;” and “He wishes she were here.”

For the moment, Gerry, you may proudly stick with your “If I were you” (I think it sounds more elegant) but simply refrain from correcting any friends or colleagues who say the other form – they’re correct, too – though I wish it weren’t/wasn’t so.

Monday, October 05, 2009

“YOU LIE!” (No, “You’re Lying!”)

Perhaps you were watching President Obama’s speech on the evening of September 9, 2009 and heard (R-SC) Rep. Joe Wilson’s by now notorious, “You lie!” outburst. And even if you were not watching, you have probably at least read the subsequent news articles about it or caught the moment on YouTube. There have been many, many responses to this outburst but not one of them has remarked on how strange it is that a native-English-speaking American would shout out, “You lie!” and not, “You’re lying!”

Rep. Wilson claims that his outburst was spontaneous – but “You lie!” is simply not a natural tense for native speakers of English. “You lie” is in the present simple tense – the one we use for expressing facts or things done regularly: “I cook badly;” “She walks to work everyday.” “He lies when he’s stressed.”

When speaking of what we or someone else is doing at a particular moment, we use a tense called the present progressive (or continuous). Say you’re at the stove with raw meats, vegetables, and sauces in various pots and skillets and your spouse walks in and says, “Hi, honey – what’s up?” you’re not going to say, “I cook.” You would say, “I’m cooking.”

In that same way, “You lie” is a totally unnatural thing to say to another person when that person is still speaking: “You’re lying!” is what most of us would have said. (Or, as Whitney Houston is quoted as saying to Oprah Winfrey in this week’s National Enquirer, “You’re a liar!” Grammatically speaking, that is absolutely perfect.)

The difference between the present simple tense and present progressive is, respectively, as clear as the difference between “What do you do?” (i.e. for a living?) and “What are you doing?” (actively, now).

In his book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” linguist John McWhorter goes to great lengths to show how English is distinguished from its Western European language counterparts (French, Spanish, German, Dutch, etc.) by this progressive tense – a Celtic influence not found on the Continent: the Celts were living in England when the West Germanic Saxon tribes overtook the island in the 6th century; the Celts then set about learning the language of the new Saxon rulers – bringing some structures of their own language into their adopted one.

That is why a “What’s up?” to someone in the kitchen in, say, New York or London prompts an “I’m cooking” answer; but the answer in Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, or Paris would mostly likely be, when translated, “I cook.”

So, getting back to Joe Wilson and his so-called spontaneous outburst during the president’s speech before Congress on health care and other reforms: That evening, Obama had just finished saying, ““The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” when from the audience a voice yells out what we now know to be Wilson’s “You lie!” exclamation, but which is a bit unintelligible even on repeated viewings.

In any case, there is no dispute that “You lie!” is what Wilson said. Still, my question remains: How could Wilson claim his “You lie!” outburst was spontaneous, when it is simply not a natural thing for any native speaker of English (and Wilson is) to say? Perhaps Wilson thought that “You lie” was better -- punchier, stronger-sounding -- than the more drawn out, “You’re lying.” If that is the case, then there would be at least a bit of premeditation there. And where there is premeditation, there is no spontaneity.

So from a purely grammatical point of view, Wilson’s excuse for his outburst rings, ironically, false.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Between You and I

Between you and me, I think “between you and I” is giving way to everyday acceptance at a faster rate than the melting of the polar ice cap – and if that doesn’t make you cringe, then consider yourself part of that change. The rest of us are mere grammatical polar bears on an ever-shrinking base, at least where prepositions and object pronouns are concerned.

Specifically, I am talking about how it will soon be – or already is (except in grammar books) – generally acceptable to put an “I” where it technically should be “me.” Our own Harvard-educated president, who is also a lawyer, best-selling author, and someone generally acknowledged to be wonderfully articulate, has been quoted as saying, “it was a very personal decision for Michelle and I” and “the main disagreement with John and I.” The day before President Obama gave his first speech on the stimulus plan, half of the New York Times Op-Ed page was an article – mainly a defense -- of just this aspect of our Chief of State’s grammar. (See: “The I’s Have It,” Feb. 24, 2009.)

Standard, traditional grammar requires the object pronoun “me” to follow a preposition (in, for, to, by, with, etc.). Think about it: We say, “with me” -- so why say, “with Michelle and I”? To those of us brought up to admire and follow the logic and structure of grammar, breaking that particular rule has always been the linguistic equivalent of fingernails across an old slate blackboard. But the mere fact that I now have to explain what kind of board – the blackboard fast becoming obsolete, being replaced by the non-chill-inducing interactive whiteboard – also says something, however metaphorically, about language change.

And though this particular I-me switch has been around for decades, it has not been recognized as standard English. Even so, I figured a time would come when this confusion would be accepted into standard English, but I did not think it would be so soon. True, it is not in any grammar book now, but I am sensing An Inconvenient Grammatical Truth that I’m not sure even Al Gore can stop – because I’m not even sure if Al Gore knows the grammatical rule himself. Which is the whole point:

Knowing the standard form of English or any language is a practical thing -- a way to be understood by the majority of people, and along with that, a way to assimilate and move up the social ladder. Though some linguists have called the whole notion of standard English elitist and politically incorrect, this linguistic aspect of social mobility boils down to common sense: whether you’re a store manager or head of a global enterprise, you will probably hire the person you think will best be able to communicate with customers or clients.

Spoken standard English is also an unconscious preference, as witnessed most recently in the youtube sensation, Susan Boyle, who surprised over a 100 million viewers with her electrifying performance, singing “I Dreamed A Dream” on an American Idol-style British reality TV show audition. The most obvious part of the surprise was visual: this dowdy, middle-aged woman revealed a voice of startling youth and beauty. The other, more subtle surprise element was aural – in interviews before and after her singing, Ms. Boyle spoke in a plain, regional Scottish accent – nothing fancy, and sounding like a simple, middle-class woman. But her singing brought forth polished-sounding words flowing effortlessly out of her mouth in elegantly neutral-accented perfection; the live audience and panel erupted into cheers and standing ovations; youtube watchers worldwide got lumps in their throats and reached for tissues.

Foreigners who “do not speak well zee English” are usually given a little slack for grammatical errors; and many accents can be positively charming. But when you can’t understand a foreigner’s non-standard English, it is not so charming. Native speakers of English, who, let’s say, have heavy regional accents (like New Yawwk, Bahstn, or Southuhn) and who dot their sentences with “ain’t” or “youse” or double negatives like “He didn’t say nuttin’” are considered less educated and less socially refined. All else being equal among, say, job candidates, the person speaking standard English would be hired in a heartbeat over the other two.

But if President Obama thinks “with Michelle and I” sounds fine, what incentive does our fairly grammar-phobic population have to say, “with Michelle and me”? Because teaching English grammar in public school went out of fashion in the 1970s, most of today’s public school teachers never formally learned the subject themselves, nor are they required to teach it today. So at this point, confusing “me” and “I” is clearly not going to keep someone from being promoted at work, much less from holding the highest office in the land – just ask Bill Clinton, who was also heard to utter the occasional “with Hillary and I.”

Before too long I imagine that English grammar books will give readers an option – the traditional usage, and the new standard. In the English as a second language textbook, “Intermediate Grammar In Use” (University of Cambridge Press, 2008), author Raymond Murphy handles the rule regarding, “If I was you” vs. “If I were you” this way: both are fine. In this case, the original grammar rule was probably gradually over-ridden by so many people who did not know the original correct way to say it (“If I WERE you”), that the incorrect way gradually became standard as well. And so – sooner rather than later – I am betting that “I” will be okay, when following a preposition and another noun or pronoun before it.

Looking at how this works in other languages, it’s interesting to see that Spanish uses “me” directly after a preposition with no other people or pronouns, but changes to “I” when said with another person:

English Spanish

Come with me Ven conmigo (“migo” being the “me” suffix)

Come with Juan and I Ven con Juan y yo

French, meanwhile, keeps “me” as an object pronoun whether with just one person, or more; but the subject pronoun “I” becomes “me” when used with more than one person:

English French

He goes to school with me. Il va a l’ecole avec moi.

He goes to school with Jean and me. Il va a l’ecole avec Jean et moi.

(No change in “me” pronoun following preposition “avec”)


I go to school. Je vais a l’ecole.

Jean and me go to school. Jean et moi allons a l’ecole.

(Change occurs in the subject pronoun: “Je” – alone; “moi” when preceded by one or more names.)

In my lifetime, the linguistic changes I’ve noticed are mostly in vocabulary and expressions – from “groovy” to “in your face” to the “ough” being taken out of our “donuts.” But the seemingly imminent change of status with “with he and I” will be a first for pure grammatical change. So why do I compare this change to the melting of the polar ice cap? As if there’s something WRONG with this verbal change? Other readers may be cheering, or wondering what all the fuss is about.

Well, to be honest, I’m traditional and sentimental. After all, I am the daughter of a man who once called up my high school principal on reading in the school newspaper that “An Evening With Burt and I” would soon be coming to our stage. “You must be joking!” Dad said to the principal, who replied that the comic duo’s name was “Burt and I.” But it was nearly a heart-stopping moment for my father.

Language Lady reader Daniel White recently wrote (concerning the “if I was/If I were” rule), and commented that language people tended to be averse to change, because we like order and tidiness (well, not if you saw my desk). Yet there is something to that, grammar-wise: Grammar gives us a starting point, a guideline, and provides speakers and writers with a sense of linguistic security. Total grammatical liberation would not bring freedom, but chaos – imagine a highway with no traffic lanes.

Still, both Danny and I agree with William Safire, who says, "In the long run, usage calls the shots." So between you and I, Grammatical Polar Bears: start swimming.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Yes We Can… Split Auxiliaries

As the sun rose on a new presidential administration a few weeks ago, two small grammar terms -- ones rarely talked about, thought about, or even understood – briefly shared the limelight with President Barack Obama. These terms were “split infinitive” and the more obscure, “split auxiliary.”

The two terms’ 15 minutes of fame came on Inauguration Day, January 20, at the swearing-in ceremony; there, before two million people in Washington, D.C. and millions more watching on TV around the world, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts spoke aloud, and in segments, the Constitution’s 35-word oath of office, which the incoming chief executive, who stood facing him with his hand on the Bible, was to repeat as directed. The problem? His Honor changed the wording.

Instead of having Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States,” Chief Justice Roberts led the new president to “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully.” That is, Roberts took the word “faithfully” (an adverb) out from between “will execute.” (Here, “will” is the auxiliary, or “helping” verb and “execute” is the main verb.) Roberts then placed “faithfully” at the end of the oath, where it sounded distinctly … odd.

After a brief pause of confusion, Obama repeated Justice Roberts’s words in the order they were delivered – but Roberts’s seemingly simple flub was so big, the two were obliged – to be on the safe side – to re-do the oath the next day.

This supreme snafu was written and talked about for at least a week afterward. Part of what emerged was that Roberts, in uniting a split auxiliary, had polarized writers, commentators, and the grammatically concerned. Also emerging from the debate was a discernible confusion between “split auxiliary” and “split infinitive.” Let me now explain the difference:
“Will faithfully execute” is an example of a split auxiliary: the auxiliary verb (“will”) is separated from the main verb (“execute”) by an adverb (“faithfully”). Infinitives, meanwhile, are verbs with the word, “to,” in front of them – like “to execute.” A “split infinitive” is when the “to” is separated from its main verb, such as: “to faithfully execute.” (More on split infinitives later.)

Few grammar books currently even address split auxiliaries (though early English usage expert H.W. Fowler discusses them in his book, “The King’s English,” 1930). One reason may be that standard English syntax, or word order, has us almost always placing adverbs before the verb they modify. For example, in “She usually walks to work,” the adverb “usually” modifies “walks.” There’s no problem there, because “walks” is a single verb, standing on its own.

Verbs with auxiliaries have two-parts: has/have + verb; will + verb; did + verb. For example: “She has seen that movie” and “She will see that movie.” In those sentences, “has seen” and “will see” are together. A “split auxiliary” occurs when an adverb is placed in between the two words: “She has already seen that movie;” and “She will never see that movie.” The adverb placement of “already” and “never” seems to “split” the verb – and some grammarians feel this is wrong.

However, most current grammar books – if they even address the question – support splitting auxiliaries, since it creates the least disruption in the flow of the sentence and is the way most people speak and write.

This view is backed by Patricia T. O’Connor, author of “Woe Is I” (2003), who clearly and wittily explains grammar to native English speakers; the view is also supported by the English-as-a-second-language authors, Raymond Murphy (British) and Kenneth Folse (American), who pointedly instruct non-native speakers to place the adverb after the helping verb. Holy split auxiliary!

Of course, native English speakers know when and how to vary the rules. In her blog “Pheta Beta Cons,” conservative writer and literary critic Carol Iannone says, “It has always been possible to say in English, I will gladly come, I will come gladly, I gladly will come, and even gladly will I come and gladly I will come. The difference lies in what emphasis the speaker wishes to give and what rhetorical effect one wishes to have” and the Language Lady quite strongly agrees. But for everyday purposes, it’s hard to improve on the original.

In that way, James Madison’s “will faithfully execute” seems indisputably correct – both for standard syntax, and even as a way that gives the all-important “faithfully” its due.

The split infinitive, meanwhile, is well known in grammar circles -- and its supporters and detractors are as fervent as devoted members of a political party. The reason has something to do with the linguistic divide between those who feel grammar should represent a kind of spoken and written ideal, and those who feel it should simply reflect the way most people speak.

Most people learn about the “infinitive” (“to” + main verb) through studying a foreign language, when verbs are presented in their infinitive form – as in, “venir” (Spanish) or “kommen” (German), both of which mean “to come.” An infinitive does not show a tense or agree with a singular or plural person. Infinitives in most languages are one word, but English has a two-part infinitive -- and somewhere in the 19th century some grammarian deemed it wrong to split the two parts up. (That is, “I want to quickly finish this blog,” should instead keep the infinitive together and say, “I want to finish this blog quickly.” To Language Lady, both are fine.)

In her book, “Painless Grammar,” (Barron’s 2006) Rebecca Elliot, Ph.D., gives examples of how writing is better served by NOT splitting infinitives:

WEAK: It is usually better to not split infinitives.
BETTER: It is usually better not to split infinitives.

Elliot cautions that if you do split an infinitive, you should be sure not to put too many words between “to” and the main verb, as in:

WEAK: “My mother told me to every day and without fail come right home after school.”
BETTER: My mother told me to come home right after school every day, without fail.

In the above sentence, keeping the infinitive together improved the whole structure and order of the sentence.

Still, when separated by just one or maybe two words, a split infinitive works just fine:
FINE: In winter, I like to sometimes walk through the snowy woods by myself.
EQUALLY FINE: In winter, I sometimes like to walk through the snowy woods …

The irony in Elliot’s advice regarding too many words in a split infinitive is that Roberts made a parallel faux pas in “correcting” the oath’s split auxiliary. When he says “…solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the President of the United States faithfully,” there are no fewer than NINE words between “execute” and “faithfully;” and in that location, “faithfully” almost seems like an afterthought -- instead of what should be a central idea.

And yet there are quite strong feelings in favor of Roberts’s changes out there:

A loyal Language Lady reader, a lawyer, wrote in an email regarding the Roberts mess that he had tweaked a colleague’s memos over the years to “fix” the split infinitives. The unappreciative colleague considered this tweaking obsessive, hyper-correct, and unnecessary. These two represent the two conflicting sides of the to split-or-not–to-split debate.

The Pro-splitters – those who feel that splitting infinitives is fine – are supported by most current grammar books and sites. But the Anti-splitters’ views are upheld by the modern bible of grammar usage, “Elements of Style” (1959 – revised in 2000). Authors William Strunk and E.B. White say that splitting infinitives "should be avoided unless the writer wishes to put unusual stress on the adverb.”

The most famous split infinitive and one referred to in almost every article on the subject is found in the opening to the 60’s TV show, “Star Trek”: there, narrator Captain Kirk explains that the starship’s goal is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Even the anti-splitter lawyer above, a Strunk & White adherent, felt “boldy” usage was justified – but that “faithfully” was not. He wrote:

Most split infinitives do not call for that sort of adverbial stress, so the rule should be to avoid it in most cases. Thus, I'd say that Captain Kirk was right in saying "to boldly go"; James Madison (or whoever) was wrong in writing "to faithfully execute".

My questions to the anti-splitter lawyer are, Why doesn’t “faithfully” deserve emphasis? And where else would you put it?

After the Inauguration Day debacle, The New York Times tried to get to the bottom of Roberts’s mistake. The editors called in Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who wrote a strongly opinionated op-ed piece on January 22 called, “Oaf of Office.” You can guess what Pinker thought of Chief Justice Roberts’s presumed Constitutional tweaking: Pinker claimed that Roberts was one of those weird grammar people who are insecure about their writing, so meekly obey some ancient, illogical, and ridiculous rule to never split two-part verbs.

Pinker’s opinion infuriated right-wing commentator Laurence Auster. In his blog, “View from the Right,” Auster said:

“Thus Pinker, the supposed rational man of science, reveals himself as a pseudo-intellectual twit operating under the sway of the stupidest and meanest liberal prejudices about conservatives, to the point where he makes up a grammatical rule (about split auxiliaries, which Auster wrote that he had never heard of) and a conservative belief about that rule that don't exist. And The New York Times published this worthless drivel.”

Auster said that not splitting infinitives was a rule “that good writers generally follow even today,” and added parenthetically: “(I myself follow it unswervingly, but don't require others to be that strict).”

Again, none of these anti-splitters has shown or even remotely suggested where “faithfully” could go that would improve upon the natural order, the one that Madison used. Saying, “I faithfully will execute” is understandable but not normal English syntax, and the same goes for, “I will execute faithfully.” And what Roberts said sounded even worse.

In fact, grammar aside, “What WAS Roberts thinking?” As a lifetime lawyer, did Roberts really think that he could change the words on a 220-year-old contract (as the oath technically is) without it mattering?

Most newspaper columnists called what Roberts did “a flub,” or an “accident,” but those would be more like mispronouncing a word, or tripping over his tongue. What Roberts actually did was tamper with the wording – which seems like sheer delusional chutzpah (akin to presidential cabinet members and nominees not paying their taxes). The question remains, was it premeditated or not:

If Roberts had rehearsed the oath– and with an estimated crowd of two million, and a televised and online audience of many more millions --- you’d think he might have gone over the oath once or twice beforehand. And say that in rehearsing, Roberts found the placement of “faithfully” to be personally annoying or, in his mind, “wrong,” you’d think he would have practiced saying it otherwise – if only for the private satisfaction of besting a founding father. And let’s say that in doing that, the grammarian side of Roberts decided that, awkward or not, and legal or not, split auxiliaries should be united, and that maybe no one would notice. This would explain why, during the inauguration, Roberts did not try to correct himself – and why Obama repeated Roberts’s words as the chief justice spoke them. We may never know for sure what ran through Roberts’s head.

As for President Obama, generally acknowledged to be an eloquent speaker, the “Yes We Can” man is firmly in favor of split auxiliaries: on the night he won the Iowa primary, he said, “You know, they said this day would never come (as opposed to “never would come”);” he later said that he would win by building a coalition for change; that that would be “how we’ll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation (as opposed to “how we finally will meet).”

But whatever your political or split-or-not-to-split persuasion, the point is this:
Grammar was invented to enhance clarity first, eloquence second. If adhering to a rule for tradition’s sake actually takes away from the meaning, then it is

However, if you feel the desire to strongly, insightfully, thoroughly, and with ample precision, respectfully disagree – then go right ahead. Except … just not with the Presidential Oath.