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Steven Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct," has a theory about Tuesday's botched oath of office: Chief Justice John Roberts' penchant for hypercorrection backfired.

In a New York Times op-ed column brilliantly headlined "Oaf of Office," Pinker writes:

How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

I don't know if Pinker's theory is dead-on, but his assessment of the non-splitters is. We've covered this nonsense extensively (here and here, for starters), and we'll be happy indeed when people let go of this compulsion once and for all.

We will not hold our breath.

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