During President Obama’s Inauguration, the staffer said to me, “the President-elect looks nervous.” I said, “Why should he be nervous? All he has to do now is get through the Oath without screwing it up!”
Which, of course, he immediately did.
It wasn’t Obama’s fault, though – Chief Justice John Roberts appears to have prompted the gaffe by speaking the word “faithfully” out of turn. In a NYT editorial, famous linguist Steven Pinker hypothesizes why.
How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.
Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.
Amen! It drives me up the wall when grammar Nazis obsess over every little split infinitive. I routinely start sentences with “and” and break other hidebound rules, and I don’t care. The primary function of language is to convey meaning (pleasurably, if possible) – not to adhere to esoteric rules that no one uses in practice. Yes, I agree that certain basic errors are inexcusable. “It’s” for “its” is one example (as in “the cat bit it’s owner”). For some reason, my iPhone’s autocorrect function seems hellbent on making me commit this egregious error, and one day, it will probably win.
It may be inconsistent of me to disapprove of one error and let another one slide. But a foolish consistency is reputed to be the hobgoblin of little minds, and English is an inconsistent language. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just being true to my mother tongue. And it pleases me that while John Roberts may disapprove, Steven Pinker and the redoubtable Stephen Fry are on my side. In fact, Stephen Fry’s last podcast is a charming, humorous rant against the tyranny of linguistic pedants. He even makes a little evolutionary analogy:
There’s no right or wrong in language any more than there’s right or wrong in nature. Evolution is all about restless and continuous change: mutation, variation. What was once meant in the animal kingdom on a particular species to be a nose can end up as an antenna, a tongue, eyes, a pair of lips, or a blank space, once evolution and the permutation of new DNA and new conditions has got to work. If the foulness of the kennel club mentality was operated in nature, just imagine! Giraffes’ necks wouldn’t be allowed to stretch, camels wouldn’t get humps; such alterations would be wrong.
Well, it’s the same in language: there is no right or wrong, only usage. Convention exists, of course it does, but convention is no more a register of rightness or wrongness than etiquette is, it’s just another way of saying usage, really. Convention is a privately agreed usage rather than a publicly evolving one. Conventions alter too, like life. Things that are kept to purity of line in the kennel club manner develop all the ghastly illnesses and deformations of inbreeding and lack of vital variation. . . it’s natural, obvious and right that our language has evolved and will continue to evolve.
The best thing to me about Tuesday’s Inaugural snafu is that the Chief Justice’s adherence to convention – a convention which Pinker argues is unjustified in the first place – made him correct the founding fathers’ grammar. And that’s the last thing you’d expect a strict Constitutional constructionalist like Roberts to do.
Steven Pinker’s op-ed here.
More from Stephen Fry here.