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.