Dolly Parton sings: “I will always love you. Captain Kirk tells his crew in Star Trek “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Steven Pinker, an op-ed contributor to the New York Times, quotes these classic American refrains as the broken rules of grammar which Chief Justice John Roberts “corrected” in giving Obama his oath of office. He titles the piece 'Oaf ofOffice”
“Split infinitives are bad. “ “You're not supposed to stick an adverb between the Subject and the Verb. Those, presumably, are the rules.
Instead of the traditional words “I solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” `Faithfully' appears between the helping verb `will' and thebasic verb, `execue'. Chief Justice John Robertsevidently disapproved. He tried to make Obama say: “I will solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.” Obama knew the traditional words. He stopped and flashed a rock star smile at Chief Justice Roberts whom he'd voted against in the Senate, and waited to give Roberts the chance to correct his feckless `correction'.. It was a little power-dance and ended up in having to be repeated the next day in the White House .
The old rules on where and when not to stick adverbs are based on Latin Grammar, The Council of English Teachers dumped these rules in the 1960s, an act which made sense but led to virtual disappearance of teaching grammar in the schools. Such good intentions led to the present cliché in thinking about grammar.
Now Sticklers are considered Grammar Nazis. Ninety-nine and nine tenths per cent of us are Grammar Ignorami. The other One Tenth are writers and singers.
The trouble comes because English is not an inflected language. We do not have one-word infinitives like Indo-European and Romance languages. `To love,' in English is two words; the infinitive in Latin is one word. In English we use `helping verbs to show time, condition, voice and mood. When we say “will go ” “shall see”, “would like”, `could have (sex), `is putting” “are fooling” `may be drooling”, `might burst' and `have done (it)' we know what we mean.
According to Sticklers,: You're not supposed to stick an adverb between the Subject and Verb, Dolly Parton should have sung: “I will love you always”. Captain Kirk should have told his crew “ to go boldly where no man has gone before,” because you're not supposed to split an infinitive. But anybody who knows anything, gets it: these lines would have wrecked the Hesperus if we followed these rules.
“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style,” says Steven Pinker. Such rules have been disputed by every `thoughtful usage manual' and been defied by great writers for centuries”.
Sure, he's right. But ignorami don't know why he's right.
Since rule-breakers are more numerous and popular than great writers and great readers, try this exercise.
Write down five examples of great writers' and singers' lines which split an infinitive. Find five adverbs or adjectives which interrupt subject and verb to advantage.
2. Make up your own five examples of great writing or song-writing breaking the same rules.
HAVE FUN. BE AS SMART AS OBAMA