Barack Obama was sworn in as president on Monday, in a ceremony that I completely missed because, due to the three hour time difference between San Diego and Washington, it started at 7 in the morning — or, as I prefer to call it, “why on earth did I set an alarm this early?”   However, I did eventually catch one part of the ceremony: the oath of office.  And of all the parts I could have caught, you might think that’s about the least exciting, and in general I would agree with you.

But Monday’s was no ordinary oath, because of a floating faithfully.  The only constitutionally mandated part of the inauguration ceremony is that the President must recite the following oath:

“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.”

(And yes, Ability is capitalized in the original text. An insidious German influence, perhaps?) Presidents have better things to fill their brains with than the exact form of a sentence that a bunch of white-hairs came up with 220 years ago, so the Chief Justice feeds the President the sentence a few words at a time and the President repeats what the Chief Justice says.  And that generally works pretty well, except that even Chief Justices aren’t perfect. And so, with the eyes of the world upon him, John Roberts choked:

ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama…
OBAMA: I, Barack…
ROBERTS: … do solemnly swear…
OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…
ROBERTS: … that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully…
OBAMA: … that I will execute…
ROBERTS: … faithfully the office of president of the United States…
OBAMA: … the office of president of the United States faithfully…
ROBERTS: … and will to the best of my ability…
OBAMA: … and will to the best of my ability…

Now, 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 Constitution short shrift. (After all, if all the Constitution demands of the President is that he say one little sentence, it’s only polite to make sure you get it right.)  But Liz asked me to comment, and by gum, I’m not about to let down a friend. I’ve got precious little to add, but I will make three small points.

First off, it doesn’t actually make a difference which position faithfully is in.  In all three forms (will faithfully execute, will execute faithfully, and will execute the Office … faithfully), faithfully has to modify the verb execute.  I suppose that you could argue that if faithfully occurs at the very end of the clause, it could modify swear, but no native speaker of English would interpret it as such.  Also, a couple of ill-informed prescriptivists have attempted to claim that Roberts was rectifying a grammatical error in the Constitution by avoiding a split infinitive.  That’s an imbecilic rationale, not only because there is no reason to be against split infinitives in English, but because there is no infinitive in any of these versions of the oath.  So it wasn’t for semantic reasons that Obama had to retake the oath.

Secondly, there was one person who didn’t botch the oath.  Sure, the captioner was probably working from a script and all, but still, kudos are due.  At least if you were deaf you weren’t confused.

There’s one final point I’d like to make here, one that may seem to have no connection whatsoever to the inauguration of a president.  My dear Pittsburgh Steelers made it back to the Super Bowl with a resounding walloping of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.  How is this relevant?  Well, at least one attendee of the inauguration was a Steelers fan. (That’s a screenshot of the Terrible Towel, in case it’s not immediately obvious.)

Actually, make that two attendees:

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