Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vow-Taking and Language-Mangling

Barack Obama retook the oath of office yesterday after Tuesday's verbal mishap by Chief Justice John Roberts, but language lovers are still bemused by it all,

In today's New York Times, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker blames it on the outdated "prohibition against 'split verbs,' in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like 'to,' or an auxiliary like 'will,' and the main verb of the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.'”

The Chief Justice, Pinker theorizes, "joined the Flubber Hall of Fame" by trying to edit "I will faithfully execute the office" to "I will execute faithfully," leading Obama to stumble in the process of becoming president.

A psychologist, Pinker dismisses the conspiracy theory that "it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005," but there is an alternative explanation that tickles a lifelong critic of language use--pure nervousness.

The swearing-in called up Rowan Atkinson's turn as the bumbling clergyman officiating at his first nuptials in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," starting with "Hear our prayers... through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Goat," instructs the groom to take "his awful wedded wife" and concludes with a blessing by "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot."

The Chief Justice wasn't quite that unnerved but, like the minister, may get it right the next time.

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