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To boldly go where no justice has gone before: Copy editing the presidential oath

So we all know that Barack Obama became president at high noon (eastern time) on Tuesday. He didn’t take the official oath until a few minutes after that, but according to the Constitution, the time, not the oath, marks the beginning of his term. The oath itself was administered not exactly flawlessly by Chief Justice John Roberts, who should have taken a page from the book of John Paul Stevens, the much older, much more liberal and, at least as far as oaths are concerned, much wiser justice, who brought along a cheat-sheet to swear in Vice President Joe Biden. Some conspiracy theorists, bless their lefty hearts, believe Roberts was trying to render invalid Obama’s presidency. I have a different view.

At worst, Roberts was just being a know-it-all and thought he didn’t need any help remembering any old oath, thank you very much. At best, he was correcting it. Here are the words that tripped up Roberts:

I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear 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.

Grammarians and school marms everywhere will tell you that a compound verb should remain intact. The adverb “faithfully” should follow the verb phrase “will execute,” rather than split it as the oath does. Nowadays, of course, this is more of a preference than a hard and fast rule. Likewise, the even more egregious error of splitting an infinitive — to go, for example — happens all the time now. No thanks to the folks at Star Trek for “boldly” inserting such bad grammar into the popular vernacular.

So when Roberts said, “will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully,” instead of “will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States,” he was doing nothing more than paying homage to some elementary school teacher who grilled good grammar into his head. Perhaps he was being presumptuous in correcting the words of the founding fathers, but I can’t blame him. Everybody needs a copy editor.

The New-clear Option

Republican nominee for vice president Sarah Palin gave, in the view of many pundits, a fine speech last night.

One thing stood out to me that was not obvious to those watching Palin on TV, but it got me thinking about an issue that, as a copy-editor, I’m always keen to discuss.

On the unedited transcript of Palin’s speech published on CNN.com, the word nuclear is spelled “new-clear.” Apparently, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow said, the word was written phonetically so Palin would pronounce it correctly. (I find it disconcerting that a candidate for the second highest office in the country might have needed an assist from Hooked on Phonics on the biggest day yet of her political career, but that is a topic for another day.)

Generally, when people mispronounce words and are later quoted in print, the word will still be spelled correctly in the newspaper or magazine story it appears in. President George W. Bush may have said “new-cue-lar” many times throughout his presidency, but most papers didn’t actually spell the word that way (unless they were writing about the very fact that our president has trouble with his words sometimes).

Nevertheless, phrases like “gonna” and “wanna” have started to replace “going to” and “want to” in our written lexicon. These are not mispronunciations, but rather the way people speak. We’re also droppin’ our final G’s (and not always including the apostrophe — sigh). Some will tell you that quoting people in this way adds authenticy, but I question it because it’s so erratic. In one graph, someone may be “still thinkin’ about who I’m votin’ for.” And in another, he or she is “supporting Obama.” Now, to correct someone’s grammar is another matter because to do that would compromise the integrity of the quote. Changing “ain’t” to “isn’t,” for example, would be changing what someone said. Editing “could of” to be “could have” wouldn’t be.

(Here, by the way, I’m only speaking of news reporting. Fiction writers can do what they like.)
Language is an evolving phenomenon, though, which is what makes it interesting, so I don’t follow any hard and fast rules. Except, of course, the Rick Astley rule. “Never going to give you up, never going to let you down” just looks wrong, doesn’t it?

Never gonna give you up.
Never gonna let you down.
Never gonna run around and desert you…