Split Infinitives and the Monster of Prescriptive Grammar

Yes, the Monster of Prescriptive Grammar has reared its ugly head, and boy did it choose the occasion to do so – the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States. For those who watched President Obama take the oath of office, I’m sure you found it awkward, ridiculous, shameful or just bizarre that Chief Justice Roberts – one of the most erudite and experienced constitutional experts of the country and the head of the Supreme Court, that is, the body responsible for constitutional review – bungled the 35-word oath, which Steven Pinker asserted are “among the best-known words in the Constitution”. How could the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court botch this short and sweet, and most certainly rehearsed, oath of office, enshrined in the sacred document which he (after the prez perhaps) is most responsible to preserve and enforce?

Well, according to the Steven Pinker (chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and psychology professor at Harvard), Chief Justice Roberts was so brainwashed and brow beaten by the Monster of Prescriptive Grammar that “his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb ‘faithfully’ away from the verb”. Chief Justice Roberts screwed up the oath because, apparently, his extensive social conditioning by Catholic schools and elitist institutions wouldn’t permit him to use an adverb between an auxiliary and the corresponding verb, because split infinitives aren’t possible in Latin, yes Latin! The elitist affinity for Latin within the Anglo-Saxon world, especially for those who are Catholic, forced young children as well as adults not to use adverbs between the two separate words that make of the infinitive verb in English – “to bungle”, for example. This stupid rule was then, even more stupidly, applied for auxiliaries – “will bungle faithfully” instead of “will faithfully bungle”.

Pinker explains that although the ungrammaticality of split infinitives (or split verbs) is bogus, “it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals”. And, now, unfortunately, the Monster of Prescriptive Grammar found its way to steps of the U.S. Capitol to rear it ugly nasty despicable head in front of the President and his family, the millions of people in attendance and, probably, hundreds of millions watching by television. May President Obama and Secretary Duncan avenge this bungled moment of history by slaying the Monster of Prescriptive Grammar with their newfound policy swords, for the honor of our 44th President and, more importantly, for the creativity, freedom and psychological wellbeing of America’s youth and future generations!!