02.04.09

The Awkward Adverb: Presidentially Speaking

Awkward adverbs became a hot topic on Inauguration Day when Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama stumbled over the presidential oath. Not that we're pointing fingers at either party (The Awkward Adverb is nonpartisan), but according to the Constitution, what the president should have said was:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States...

What he was told to say was:

I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully...

From a grammatical standpoint, does it matter where the adverb falls in the sentence? Both versions are acceptable, but good style calls for placing an adverb close to the verb it modifies. Therefore, the Founding Fathers did well by sticking "faithfully" next to "execute" instead of far away at the end of the phrase.

Some sticklers, however, believe that verbs should never be split. They disapprove of how "faithfully" elbows its way between "will" and "execute," just as they shudder when Captain Kirk proclaims his intention to boldly go where no man has gone before. (He should prefer to go boldly into deep space.) Even though there’s no compelling reason to always insist on united verbs, schoolmarms used to slap wrists for perceived transgressions like split infinitives. At least one linguist believes that internalized habits stemming from this misguided rule were what caused the flub at the swearing-in ceremony.

ABOUT HENRY ALPERT
Henry Alpert,the secret identity behind Action Copy, discovered his writing powers when a radioactive bookworm bit him on the hand at a young age. Before going solo many years ago, he reported for an Asian daily newspaper and taught writing at esteemed universities. He's earned a Master of Fine Arts and has worked on staff at a New York financial trade magazine. In Mr. Alpert, the creative and analytical unite to create one powerful writer. Mr. Alpert currently lives a mild-mannered existence in a quiet neighborhood of New Orleans with his wife, infant son, and dog.

ABOUT THE AWKWARD ADVERB
The Awkward Adverb is a monthly e-mail newsletter which highlights English-language flaws that have appeared on a sign, in print, on the Web, or anywhere in the public sphere. If you wish to subscribe to the e-mail newsletter version of The Awkward Adverb, click here. This link also contains archived entries.

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