Thursday, January 22, 2009

What's in an Oath?

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
U.S. Const. art. II, § 1.

As you might have noticed on Tuesday, Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama were unsteady on the oath of office: the "faithfully" got moved. Just to be on the safe side, Obama took the oath again yesterday. Constitutional law scholars say this was the way to go, since the oath is in quotation marks in the Constitution and isn't to be messed with. Experts say Obama should retake the oath, San Francisco Chron., Jan. 21, 2009. For more, see this blog post by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

Steven Pinker calls the Chief Justice to task for his hypercorrection -- moving around "faithfully" to avoid the split infinitive ("to faithfully execute") when there's nothing wrong with it. Op-Ed Contributor - Oaf of Office -, Jan. 21, 2009.

Want to read up on your grammar and usage? See our guide, Legal & General Writing Resources.

The first UW law student, staff member, or professor to email the Reference Office with the phrase "oath of office" will win a small prize.


Michelle said...

I think the concern of hypercorrection is particularly odd since there is, in the constitutional text of the oath, no infinitive: "will faithfully execute" contains no infinitive, whereas "to faithfully execute" of course does. Unless flubbing the oath up meant inserting an infinitive to boot!

Mary Whisner said...


That's what hypercorrection is: correcting something that doesn't need to be corrected.

Another example: People get chided for saying "Him and me played ball." And so they are afraid ever to say "him and me." They hypercorrect and say: "Please set up a meeting with he and I."