Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Faithfully Execute Faithfully the Office of President of the United States Faithfully

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2009

Photo by AP

Photo by AP

Doug and Adam are sick today, and we’re hanging out in the living room watching the inauguration ceremony. The actual swearing-in was interesting. Chief Justice Roberts started out with the words for Obama to repeat:

“I, Barack Hussein Obama –“

Obama repeated: “I, Barack –“

Whoops! Justice Roberts wasn’t done yet! He went on: “–do solemnly swear…”

Obama took it from the top: “I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear…

Ten minutes earlier, I had heard a slightly too-long pause between Justice Stevens’s intonation of part of the vice-presidential oath of office and Joe Biden’s repeating of it, and I could almost see Biden thinking, “Is it my turn now? OK, he’s waiting, so it must be my turn.” Now, during the shorter presidential oath, Obama stumbled in the opposite direction. Of course, it was a stumble on the part of Roberts, too, since he could have waited for Obama to finish saying his name, and then go on with do solemnly swear.

The oath went on. I didn’t catch it precisely, and we were watching on a TV without DVR, so I couldn’t rewind, but when it got to the part about faithfully executing the office of President of the United States, there was some more stopping, starting, and backtracking. The wording in the Constitution is:

I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States

This is a natural placement of the adverb, between the modal will and the rest of the verb phrase. Roberts phrased it like this:

I will execute faithfully the office of President of the United States

This is also grammatical, but a little bit stilted. I wondered if Roberts was a victim of the “no split infinitives” rule gone wild, the pseudo-rule that causes people to rearrange adverbs when there’s not an infinitive in sight. Or it may be that he just forgot to say faithfully earlier, and was squeezing it in at the last exit before he went into the long noun phrase the Office of President of the United States. The phrasing Obama ultimately took was to go ahead and say the heavy noun phrase and put the adverb at the end:

I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully

That works, too, but the Constitution’s wording is the best. I hear the commentators now observing that Roberts “messed it up” regarding the oath of office. What do you think? Does variation in adverb placement count as messing it up if you’re saying an oath of office?

I also noticed at the end that Roberts said, “So help you God” and Obama dutifully changed the you to me. Now I can’t remember what the usual way of doing this is. Does someone out there more used to hearing (or administering) oaths than I am know if the administrator says so help you God or so help me God?

And on Obama’s subsequent speech: Way to go! I, too, reject as false the claim that we have to choose between our nation’s security and its ideals. And even if it were true, choosing security is the wrong choice.

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32 Responses to “Faithfully Execute Faithfully the Office of President of the United States Faithfully”

  1. Uly said

    So long as you swear (or affirm!) to do something, I don’t think the wording matters that much.

  2. Tushar said

    I too, sitting in front of the television laughed at this.Even Obama laughed a little. Thw world might be making news of this little thing that happened.

  3. Andrew hinton said

    This was Mr. Roberts doing. The oath, as instructed by all chief justices to presidents taking the oath in the past, and as contained in Article II of the Constitution, recites as …that I will faithfully execute… and not …United States faithfully…

    Possibly Mr. Roberts wanted to trip up the President at this momentous occasion. President Obama obviously knew the right order, but felt he should follow the lead of Mr. Roberts. Shame on Mr. Roberts.

  4. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Indeed. NBC said that Chief Justice Roberts was working without notes, which was obviously not a good idea, as he was the one who first made the error of placing “faithfully” at the end. President Obama, knowing how it was supposed to go, paused, prompting Roberts to repeat the line in a different—but still incorrect—form. Obama chose to go with that one, and they both stumbled through the rest.

  5. Geri said

    Something so serious and important, like the US Presidential Oath of Office, should definetely be said exactly as it was intended. This is a serious oath. Not only the words should be said correctly, as our founding fathers intended, but should be said with respect and a serious nature. No fumbling, no laughing and no change in its word placement. Otherwise, it should have been said over, properly.
    That “fumbling” incident gave me a bad feeling. Not a good way to start off the very serious business of running our country!!

  6. There are cases where changing the placement of an adverb changes the sense of the sentence, but this isn’t one of them. So I think it doesn’t matter to the oath. Obama’s facial expression at that moment seemed to me to say “I studied my lines. Didn’t you?”

  7. Nick said

    United States Constitution
    Article II
    Section 1

    …”Before he (the President of the United States) 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.”

    Now since he really did say that, Obama is not President. Right? I guess that the supreme court will have to bicker about that. But I’m sure that John Roberts will say he is though.

  8. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Language Log sums it up in much more detail in “Adverbial Placement of the Oath Flub“.

  9. The Ridger said

    Oy. If it matters, he can say it again. But he was really president at noon, regardless.

  10. Neal said

    Janet: Good point. For example, behave consistently does not mean the same as consistently behave.

    Nick and Ridger: I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s any question about Obama’s truly being president. I just wondered how much of a faux pas people considered moving the adverb in this oath.

    Gordon: You’re right. Ben did write a good post. He had the patience to wait for the transcript, and got the details better as a result. Also be sure to check out this post from the San Francisco State University linguistics grad students, which gives a good pragmatics-based insight into the exchange. (Hat tip to Words Are Delicious.)

  11. Kim W. said

    Hi! Thanks Neal for linking to us (comment just above this one). A small clarification if I may…we’re the San Francisco State University grad students, not Simon Fraser.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading all the linguistic/inaugural blog postings that have popping up today! With a smart man leading a smart team, I think linguists and others will have plenty of interesting things to discuss for the next several years. Sure beats drawing Palin syntax trees!

  12. Karen Graf said

    “to execute the office to the Presidency”….hmmm…to do so “faithfully”….hmmm

    NWO theorists will have a field day…

    BTW…Re “So help you God”…he was incorrect…he is speaking as Barack, remember?

  13. Sorry, Kim. I’ve made the correction.

  14. Raj Chaphalkar said

    @Karen Graf: I’ve only heard “…so help you God?” in old-timey courtroom movies where a witness is being asked to testify under oath. But that is phrased in the form of a direct question: “Do you solemnly swear…?”

    In this case, as you point out, the justice was asking the president to repeat after him, not answer a direct question, so he should have said “so help me God.”

  15. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    No, he shouldn’t have. The only part that Obama was required to repeat was the oath of office. “So help me God” is not part of the oath. It is a personal choice to add anything else on. Roberts was right in asking Obama if we wanted to say it. It would not be right to act as if he were supposed to say it.

  16. man from mars said

    Obama’s phrasing substantially changed the meaning from what the Constitution specified.

    In the Constitution, faithfulness is paramount. But the way Obama said the Oath, moving “faithfully” to the end of the clause, it is the execution that is paramount. The Constitution requires our Presidents first be faithful to the Constitution – not as an afterthought. And that is a dictum Obama should remember when he decides whether to retake the Oath correctly.

    Moreover, the Take Care clause requires the president “faithfully execute” the Laws. By removing this phrase from his Oath, Obama severs the link between the Oath of Office and the Take Care clause.

  17. The Ridger said

    Someday someone will answer “No.” And on that day, watch out! Sparks will fly.

    But I hope that Roberts asked Obama if he wanted that included.

  18. Glen said

    I’m much more concerned about whether he will, in fact, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. I’m hard put to think of any President since Coolidge who has. Seriously.

  19. Neal said

    Man from Mars: I don’t follow your second paragraph. Are the truth conditions different for executing something faithfully different from those of faithfully executing something? Also, what is the Take Care clause?

    Glen: True, but you know I try to keep the focus on the language here. But maybe (in a comment or on your blog) you could give a brief rundown on how each president since Coolidge violated the oath. FDR, sure, with the attempted enlargement of the Supreme Court. LBJ, with the circumvention of having Congress declare war. Actually, maybe that’s what you have in mind for Truman, too. Reagan: the Iran-Contra affair? And you needn’t explain for George W. Bush, since we’re asking for something short. And for Obama, maybe there’s what I’ve been hearing about Hillary Clinton and an “emoluments” clause that some say now has a Constitutional workaround, and others say is just routinely violated by people who don’t really think the Constitution is binding when it puts up inconvenient roadblocks like this. (If Glen doesn’t explain it, Google it; I don’t have a firm enough grasp to explain it myself.)

  20. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    CNN is reporting that Obama is retaking—or already has retaken—the oath, in order to alleviate any problems with the original slip-ups. I haven’t looked into the details, though.

  21. The Ridger said

    As his first overt act to carry out the Constitution, he retook the Oath. This time without a Bible, too.

  22. egon59 said

    I’m with Gordon (#4). I was convinced Mr. Roberts first made an error, but for a non-native speaker like myself it was hard, up to now, to put my finger on the mistake. — Egon (The Netherlands)

  23. man from mars said

    Neal asks:

    Man from Mars: I don’t follow your second paragraph. Are the truth conditions different for executing something faithfully different from those of faithfully executing something? Also, what is the Take Care clause?

    To answer your first question: yes. It is impossible to quantify the difference, but there is a difference in emphasis (it’s like trying to quantify the difference between “very rich” and “extremely rich” or something – it exists, but it’s hard to articulate.

    Here is a another example to make the distinction clearer.

    Consider these two sentences:

    1. I desperately ran from the heavily guarded bank with its glowering guards and then took a cab to the movie theater, where I watched Bonnie and Clyde.

    2. I ran from the heavily guarded bank with its glowering guards desperately and then took a cab to the movie theater, where I watched Bonnie and Clyde.

    In the second version, the running seems a bit less desperate than in the first version, because the adverb was moved from a prominent position at the start of the sentence to a less prominent one in the middle, far from the verb. Similarly, Obama initially moved the adverb to a prominent place at the beginning of the oath to a less prominent place in the middle of the oath, which slightly, but indubitably, diminishes its force.

    To answer your second question, the Take Care clause is that clause in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution defining the legal responsibilities of the President: he must “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” This is the clause that authorizes the creation of the Department of Justice, and all federal law enforcement efforts, among other things.

  24. [...] Ben Zimmer has already commented on this at Language Log, as has Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded. Not to mention that Obama and Roberts did a do-over to make sure that no one was giving the [...]

  25. Neal Goldfarb said

    I don’t think I agree with the statement that “execute faithfully the office” is grammatical. At best, it’s borderline, and I suspect that the only reason it gets even that far is the legalistic context that it occurs in. This type of construction (Transitive Verb – adv – Direct Object) is one that lawyers are prone to. But in general, it’s very rare for adverbs to appear between the verb and its direct object, and the results are very awkward-sounding — sort of like a word-for-word translation from French:

    * We watched contentedly television.
    * I like very much this book.
    * Bill ate yesterday a turkey sandwich.
    * Chief Justice Roberts administered mistakenly the oath.

    • Neal said

      Man from Mars: Thanks for the clarification. I think your meaning difference is more of a metalinguistic difference. “I’m sorry” means the same thing whether I say it clearly and amicably, or mumble it with a frown on my face, but you could rightly infer how sincerely I meant it based on those clues. What you describe sounds like the same kind of difference.

      Neal: I meant, “grammatical in light of the heavy NP it precedes.”

  26. man from mars said

    I’m not sure if it’s correct to say that inferring meaning from word order is “metalinguistic”: inferring meaning from word order seems an inherently linguistic enterprise to me, quite unlike inferring meaning from tone of voice. Moreover, “faithfully” is a particular kind of word that only derives meaning from the emphasis placed on it. Any word order change that changes that emphasis, changes the meaning.

    To return to the particular case of reciting the Oath in Article 2, Section 1, there are many more textual signals that the word order is intended to be unchanged by the Constitution, including:

    (1) the directive that the President shall take Care in the Take Care clause, suggesting he be careful in his execution of the laws;

    (2) the emphasis in the Take Care clause that just to Execute the Laws (including, thus, the oath) is not enough: the execution must be faithful;

    (3) the contrast of the Presidential Oath with the oath required of judges and legislators, only the former oath prescribing a specific word order;

    (4) the use of the term faithful again in the oath;

    (5) the introductory phrase in Article 2, emphasizing that before the President enter into the Execution of his office, he take the oath; and

    (6) the oath language, the the president must solemnly swear or affirm, and the emphasis “I do solemnly”;

    (6) the identical phrase faithfully execute appearing in the oath and in the Take Care clause.

    Thus, to move “faithfully” to after the direct object in the oath has two distinct semantic effects.

    The first, as I suggested above, is to decrease the force of the adverb. Whether this loss of emphasis be called linguistic or metalinguistic, it is a clear semantic change.

    The second effect is that, to the extent the first Oath was represented as satisfying Article 2, Section 1, its swearing proclaims a particular philosophy on Constitutional interpretation. The swearing itself would stand for the proposition that the modified version did satisfy the obligation to fulfill Article 2, Section 1 under the take Care clause: that all the quotation marks, the repetitions of “faithful”, the word “care” and so forth were subordinate to the particular grammatical argument that the change in adverb placement had no semantic effect. Such an act therefore connotes a particular interpretive philosophy that the words of the original oath would not have connoted. This second connotation is a second (much greater) change in meaning. Instead of the oath signalling faithful adherence to the constitution, it would signal flexibility in interpreting the text of the constitution.

    My point in all this is just to underscore that the first version of the oath was semantically different from that in the Constitution, a point that the press failed to concede in its reporting on the matter.

  27. Kim W. said

    You may have a point about a slight semantic variation. However, pragmatics comes into play for the very reason that we simply cannot do literal, exhaustive reads of all our communications with others. I don’t think any of us really think that Obama’s repetition of Robert’s phrasing is proof of a substantial shift in his mind of the priorities of the job that he is being sworn in for. I believe that Obama knows and understands the order of allegiances stated in the oath, regardless of if he repeated them verbatim. But for those who had doubts, he did show us all that he does “get it” by participating in a redo, just to make sure.

    What I am trying to say is that the oath, while being technically semantically different, was syntactically the same in its underlying representation, as well as pragmatically viable. Semantics and pragmatics are not measurable in binary terms, because we are not working from the same exact lexicon (our mental representations of words and usage vary from person to person), but I think that the majority of us did, and do, feel that the event was felicitious and pragmatically sound. And we absolutely cannot ignore these aspects of communications when looking at speech in social context.

    Another thing that I find really interesting about this whole incident is that it does show us how far English has come from the days of case markings and syntactic simplicity. That the placement of this adverb could be considered significantly distinctive is telling of where the English language has taken us since the days of Middle English, or even Early Modern English. It also makes me wonder what the issues would be if the flub was due to phonological variation of the speaker, either dialectical or due to error, rather than syntactic variation? Would we be arguing about the validity of the oath? The semantic twisting of the constitutional meaning?

  28. Neal Goldfarb said

    Man from Mars: I don’t agree with your statement that moving faithfully to after the direct object deemphasizes it. The part of a sentence on which emphasis falls most naturally is the end. And I would suggest that the principle of end-emphasis applies as well to the faithfully execute phrase in the oath, which could serve as a grammatically acceptable stopping point for the sentence.

    Also, what gives you the idea that “‘faithfully’ is a particular kind of word that only derives meaning from the emphasis placed on it”? And what other words have this property?

  29. man from mars said

    Neal Goldfarb comments,

    I don’t agree with your statement that moving faithfully to after the direct object deemphasizes it. The part of a sentence on which emphasis falls most naturally is the end.

    I do not understand the relevance of your observation that the end of a sentence is a place of emphasis to the question of whether moving an adverb to the middle of a sentence modifies its emphasis.

    Do you agree, for example, that the adverb “desperately” has less emphasis in the second of the sample sentences I quoted above than in the first? Recall the sentences were:

    1. I desperately ran from the heavily guarded bank with its glowering guards and then took a cab to the movie theater, where I watched Bonnie and Clyde.

    2. I ran from the heavily guarded bank with its glowering guards desperately and then took a cab to the movie theater, where I watched Bonnie and Clyde.

    You note that

    I would suggest that the principle of end-emphasis applies as well to the faithfully execute phrase in the oath, which could serve as a grammatically acceptable stopping point for the sentence

    I am not certain what you mean by the term “faithfully execute phrase,” but if you mean the independent clause “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States”, then I disagree that there is any “principle of end-emphasis” at work. Just because the end of a sentence is a point of emphasis does not mean that this “principle of end-emphasis” applies to independent clauses within a sentence. Quite the contrary. For example, in the sentences I cited above, “I desperately ran from the heavily guarded bank with its glowering guards” is an independent clause that could likewise have served as a “grammatically acceptable stopping point,” but shifting its adverb to the middle of sentence nonetheless diminished its emphasis within the sentence.

    what gives you the idea that “‘faithfully’ is a particular kind of word that only derives meaning from the emphasis placed on it”? And what other words have this property?

    The word is used in the Constitution to denote a way of executing something, either “Laws” in the Take Care clause or an “Office” in the presidential Oath clause. But in each case, any execution by definition has some level of faithfulness. One cannot reasonably “faithlessly execute Laws” because as soon as one tried, one would not be executing that law. The word “faithfully” therefore denotes a particular kind of emphasis on how Laws are to be executed, and so it derives meaning from its emphasis.

    Other examples of such adverbs in this context would be “scrupulously” or “carefully” or “legally” or “accurately” – adverbs that are nominally redundant as applied to “execute” except insofar as what they emphasize.

    Not all adverbs only derive meaning from emphasis. For instance, “intermittently,” “continuously,” “permanently,” and “secularly” are each different from “faithfully” in that each has specific unambiguous semantic content other than emphasis.

    On a lighter note, you guys might like the latest XKCD cartoon on the Oath.

  30. Neal Goldfarb said

    Man from Mars says:

    Do you agree, for example, that the adverb “desperately” has less emphasis in the second of the sample sentences I quoted above than in the first?

    I’m not at all sure that I agree, and to the extent that desperately is in fact deemphasized in #2, the cause isn’t its position in the sentence. Rather, I think the problem is that the semantic connection between desperately and ran is diluted by the presence of a lot of stuff that’s peripheral at best to the act of desparately running: the adjective phrase (heavily guarded) and the the prepositional phrase (with its glowering guards) that modify bank.

    In contrast, the language of the oath is semantically much more tightly integrated. The phrase the office of the President of the United States is the direct object of execute, and it has the effect of giving greater specificity to the verb by making clear which of several possible senses of execute is intended. (I.e., it rules out “execute” ‘kill pursuant to a conviction and sentence of death’, “execute” ‘sign (a legal document) with appropriate formalities’, etc.) Also, of the President of the United States is the complement of office and of the United States is the complement of President.

    As for your discussion of what faithfully means, I’m afraid I still don’t see what you’re getting at.

  31. [...] and that this string then forms the VP with the Office of President of the United States. And as we were reminded in 2009, adverbs have some flexibility in where they can be placed in a sentence, so you could even [...]

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