Sociolinguistics and the Botched Oath

Far too much has been said of the collaborative botch that President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts made of the Oath of Office.  But I do want to share some linguists’ observations, and note a connection to industry culture.  In this case: the culture of lawyers.

Linguists will happily note that Roberts’ misplacing of “faithfully” might reflect an instinctive grammatical superstition, one particularly favored by lawyers.  Specifically, he over-extended the bogus “avoid split infinitives” rule to blindly cover all “split verbs,” and thus he avoided uttering “will faithfully serve.”

Mark Liberman, co-founder of the excellent Language Log, has cited the highly-influential Texas Law Review Manual of Style as a leading perpetrator of the split-verb superstition, and thus a key player in “Grammatical indoctrination at law reviews“. (He later suggests that split-verb-phobia also infected journalism. As is typical of Language Log, the comments rival the posts: one comment posits the AP Style Guide as the infectious agent.)

And for a different cultural dimension (but, really, just for fun) I give you another commentator’s suggestion that split-verb-phobia is

“evidently a hangup of the heathen English, not of us purer Anglophones from North Britain:
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led…”

The Texas Manual more recently backed away from its error.  (Yes, “error”!  Even Fowler and Follet encourage placing adverbs within compound verbs. And if Fowler says this is a bogus rule, then even a hard-line prescriptivist should agree it’s bogus.  Right, Mom?) But it has influenced thousands of lawyers, adding to other unique and distinct habits of speech and writing peculiar to lawyers and attorneys, such as those compound and redundant noun phrases. Law Professor Jim Lindgren writes:

This nonsensical rule against split verbs has caused entire volumes of law reviews to be filled with page after page in which adverbs have been squeezed out of their normal place. Most law professors who have dealt with law reviews recently seem either to have had disputes about the placement of adverbs or, worse, to have adopted the Texas approach, the approach of people who write as if English were a second language. It’s frightening to think that the ability of a generation of law professors to recognize their native language has been damaged by one silly book. Before picking up the Texas Manual in 1987, I had noticed that the ability of the law reviews to place adverbs correctly had deteriorated, but I hadn’t known the reason.

The best discussion I’ve found of the inaugural-oath event is in Benjamin Zimmer’s  recent posting in Language Log. Again, the posting is good; it’s the comments that are great. (As Zimmer noted in a follow-on.)

Other, unrelated,  learnings and observations from that thread:

  • Such vows and oaths are “deaconed off” for practical reasons.  (A new word, to me, if an archaic one. It’s apparently a late-19th-century Americanism, OED-cited and variously attested, stemming from the New England Congregational church practice.)
  • The oath is not performative (it doesn’t make-it-so: “I bet a dollar” would be performative), in the sense of causing the man to become President. He already was. But it is as performative  as any other oath or promise.  That is: the Hippocratic oath won’t make you a doctor, but I’m happier if my doc has sworn to it.
  • Weirdly, no generative syntactician or truth-functional semanticist has yet stepped into that discussion to argue that I will faithfully execute X is “the same sentence” as I will execute X faithfully.

One thought on “Sociolinguistics and the Botched Oath

  1. Ouch! That hurts. You mean all that stuff I learned in Britain overturned by the bloody Scots. What was I thinking? Ah yes … and now to boldly go where … what was the phrase? … anyway, to boldly go home Herbert! And there for a wee dram o’the talisker tonight to twist the tongue and bother the brain. I knew I had to split my water from my whisky to completely satisfy the Scots but to cojoin the infinitives to clarify the courts? That’s quite another thing entirely.

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