Adverbial placement in the oath flub

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Chief Justice John Roberts' administration of the presidential oath to Barack Obama was far from smooth. Early reports differ in saying who stumbled: NBC and ABC say the flub was Roberts', while the AP says it was Obama's. I think both men were a bit nervous, and the error that emerged from their momentary disfluency came down to a problem of adverbial placement.

The Constitution gives the oath as:

"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."

Here is the transcript as given by NBC and ABC:

ROBERTS:  Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?
OBAMA:  I am.
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…
ROBERTS:  … preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
OBAMA:  … preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
ROBERTS:  So help you God?
OBAMA:  So help me God.
ROBERTS:  Congratulations, Mr. President.

In the embedded clause of the oath, the adverb faithfully is properly positioned after the auxiliary will (1). If you miss the adverb as it is placed in the official wording, you have two more chances for inserting it in a coherent fashion: placing faithfully after the verb execute (2) or placing it at the end of the clause (3):

that I will 1 execute 2 the office of President of the United States 3

Roberts does indeed miss his opportunity to put faithfully in position 1, perhaps thrown by Obama repeating the opening phrase of the oath earlier than he expected. In Roberts' first attempt, faithfully ends up in clause-final position 3. Obama seems to realize that the placement is wrong, but repeats the first part of the clause all the way through to the verb: that I will execute. There's no possibility of getting faithfully back to position 1 at this point, but Roberts gets as close as he can by placing it in position 2, immediately after the verb, in his second attempt. Obama ignores the self-repair, however, and ends up repeating the misplaced version that Roberts originally supplied, with faithfully in clause-final position 3.

From the perspective of speech act theory and performativity, we could go on to consider whether felicity conditions failed for this particular speech act, since the wording was not actually the official one. But the question is moot: the oath is not actually performative, since Barack Obama became president immediately after 12 noon (before Roberts had even started to administer the oath), as several network commentators observed. And Jan Crawford Greenberg of ABC provides a historical precedent:

It's worth pointing out that Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President himself, also flubbed the oath when he was swearing in Herbert Hoover in 1929. When Taft administered the oath, he said, "preserve, maintain and defend the Constitution," instead of "preserve, PROTECT, and defend." So where Roberts flipped a couple of words, Taft substituted an entirely new one.

There was one other minor slip-up on Roberts' part: in his first run-through of the embedded clause, he got a preposition wrong, saying "I will execute the office of president to the United States," rather than of. A less noticeable speech error, but nonetheless the type of thing that happens when one speaks from memory without written prompts, as Roberts apparently did.

[Update, 9:30 pm: Obama was just asked about the oath flub on ABC in a brief backstage interview at the Neighborhood Ball.

Robin Roberts: During the taking the oath of office, Chief Justice Roberts inadvertently switched some words up. You were trying to help him out there a little bit, it seemed, with your look.

Pres. Obama: Oh, listen, I think we're, uh, we're up there, we've got a lot of stuff on our minds, and he actually I think helped me out on a couple of, uh, stanzas there. So overall I think it went relatively smoothly and I'm very grateful to him.

ABC report here, more commentary from Diane Sawyer here.]

[Update, 1/21: Welcome, readers of Andrew Sullivan, AOL News, Mother Jones, One Good Move, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Politico

And it looks like the oath has more legal standing than I (or other early commentators) had realized. Some constitutional scholars are suggesting a do-over, at least in private.]

[Late update: Sure enough, they went ahead with a do-over. Followup post is here.]


  1. Irene said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    But aren’t we all glad neither Roberts nor Obama omitted "office of"?

  2. Chris said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I noticed that the words "from all enemies, foreign and domestic" were in the vice-presidential oath, but not in the presidential oath as administered by Roberts. Is this correct, or another mistake?

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Chris: the oath of office for Vice-President and for members of Congress is different from the constitutionally mandated presidential oath. The text is given in the U.S. Code here.

  4. gribley said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    The bit that threw me was "president to the United States". I heard that and I was like — huh, is that the right title? Should that "to" be in there? — and by then I had already missed the rest of the phrase. Were I Obama, that would have thrown me.

    regardless — as long as it's legally binding, I'm happy!

  5. Dennis Brennan said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    FWIW, the words spoken by Obama don't matter. Amendment XX, Section 1 to the United States Constitution provides, in pertinent part: "The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January… and the terms of their successors shall then begin."

  6. Mark Gould said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Something puzzles me about oaths. Why, in this literate age, do we persist in "repeating after me…"? Am I right in my assumption that being led into an oath or vow is a hangover from a time when the maker of a vow could not read the required wording for themselves?

    Legally speaking, I am unconvinced that there is any difference in the binding quality of an oath taken in the traditional way and one spoken directly to the person administering the oath (certainly, no-one has suggested that my marriage is void because my wife and I read our vows directly without being led by the priest). Does anyone sense that there is greater linguistic impact in repetition?

  7. Sepi said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    Isin't the swearing of the Presidential oath a formality? That no matter what at 12 noon the President of the United States of America would have been Obama? With or without that oath?

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    Dennis Brennan and Sepi: That's indeed what I was driving at when I said "the oath is not actually performative." I should more properly say that it's not performative in a legally binding sense. Of course, it's performative on a more symbolic level as a ritual in what Robert Bellah called America's "civil religion."

  9. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    When Obama started his oath and then paused, my first thought was that he had forgotten the entire block of the oath that he was meant to repeat. It looks now, though, like Obama paused to consider a dilemma. He certainly already knew what the oath was. When he get to "execute," he knew something was wrong and had to decide whether to repeat what Roberts said or to say what the actual oath was supposed to be.

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    @Mark Gould: Especially in this presidential and democratic perspective, consider the ideas of (a) being given power and (b) taking it. Granted, it's just still symbolic, but I think people in general would prefer that the presidency be handed to a person instead of that person standing alone and claiming it.

  11. Joe Shelby said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    I actually see it now that Roberts' first "flub" was in not pausing after saying the name ("I, Barack Hussein Obama, , do …"), which is something Obama definitely expected. That first lack of pause threw Obama off, who then interrupted Roberts the first time, which then caused Roberts to leave off "faithfully" and that in turn made Obama have to choose to repeat Roberts or say the words as written. Compounded nerves.

    Or maybe it was a conspiracy on Roberts' to give right wing radio something to talk about. :)

  12. Karl Weber said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Andy Hollandbeck: I think you have the right idea. There is something seemly about the symbolism of the avowedly non-political, non-partisan Chief Justice administering the oath–by contrast with the symbolism for example of Napoleon seizing the crown from the hands of the pope and placing it on his own head to emphasize his independence from religious authority.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Coby Lubliner (early this afternoon in another thread): I wonder if Chief Justice Roberts' difficulty with saying "will faithfully execute" had something to do with a split-infinitive phobia that may at some point have been inculcated in him.

    A very astute observation: see The Split Verbs Mystery and When Zombie Rules Attack for a discussion of the lessons that may have been beaten into him during his legal training. It's ironic that the constitutionally-specified presidential oath of office could not be published in a law review that follows the Texas Manual of Style as of 1990 or so (as many law reviews do or did)!

  14. dr pepper said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    I would have peferred it if he'd left out "so help me God".

  15. Doc Rock said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

    Obama's a constitutional law scholar and his hesitation may have been whether there would be a question if the oath were not properly administered? Some also question whether this might not have been Roberts' little 'payback' for Obama's having voted against confirming him as Chief Justice. Both belong to one of the most exclusive fraternities–editor of the Harvard Law Review.

  16. Nick Lamb said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    Yes, the entire thing is optional, the incoming President could show up, say "I have work to do, let's blow this popsicle stand" and go straight into a policy meeting — but historically presidents have taken an oath and given a speech (albeit initially not to the general public) and although Obama is many things he's not the sort to mess with tradition. You can also expect to see him pardon a turkey, give regular speeches telling Americans what they already know, and so on. Hopefully he'll find time in between to make wise policy decisions, bang a few heads together in Congress and get his country back on a safe course.

    dr pepper, eliding "so help me God" would have sent entirely the wrong message to a group of Americans who are very suspicious of him. Having got the job it's now his responsibility to unite the country, not tear it apart. Omitting that line is probably easiest for a President known for piety. If someone like that said "I don't want to put God in my oath, that feels wrong to me" then people would just go "Oh, OK, you know best". But Obama needs to leave those words in there.

  17. Sheila Leavitt said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    The "oath flub" was entirely Roberts'. Each president recites the following oath, in accordance with Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:
    "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."

    Saying the oath may not be what makes the president the president, but the wording is not, to my knowledge, optional.

    Roberts gave Obama the line "I Barack Hussein Obama…", and paused (as is ALWAYS DONE—see here for G. W. Bush inauguration in 2005— and look up any others you like); and then Roberts jumped in with "…do solemnly swear…" before Obama was finished saying his name. Then he changed the word order in a section of the oath that my 14 year old knows by heart, as do most intelligent sentient Americans: "…that I will faithfully execute…" Putting faithfully at the end, if not deliberate (and I'm not saying it was), was certainly a Freudian slip for a guy whose confirmation vote as Chief Justice lacked President (then Senator) Obama's "yea." For god's sake! And then, instead of saying "So help ME God," for Obama to repeat, like he's been repeating all the rest of the oath, he is cute and says "So help YOU God?" Although, I suppose maybe Obama asked for it this way?

  18. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

    The theory that Roberts was intentionally trying to trip up Obama is gaining some traction — see Wonkette for starters.

  19. M. Nestor said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    I thought the entire exchange was cute. Analyses such as this are very interesting from a linguistic perspective, though it makes me a bit sad how superficial and paranoid the theatre of politics can be in the hands of the petty or the overly defensive. Perhaps it needs to be a bit more Brechtian.

  20. Tim said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    Sheila Leavitt : Actually, the second G. W. Bush inauguration seems to be the only one where the pause came after the name. The other ones I saw on YouTube all show that the pause came after "swear" (except FDR's 1933 oath, where there was no pause—the entire oath was recited, then repeated). In fact, Joe Biden's oath, which was taken only minutes before Obama's, follows the same pattern. Obama did jump in early. But they recovered from that pretty easily. The "faithfully" mishap was the one that really sounded awkward.

  21. Carol Ayres said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    But it was Brechtian. Regardless of who flubbed first or who flubbed worse, the unscripted, unpredictable exchange broke the fourth wall and reframed all the pageantry as theatre, not reality. Theatre that evoked reflection as much as emotion. I loved this, actually, because I think in so doing, it strangely and perfectly fit with Obama's speech and overall message, which consistently attempts to shift the power and responsibility of change from "actors" to "audience" or from politicians to "we (us) the people."

  22. John Cowan said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    The reason for deaconing off (see OED, deacon v. 1) an oath of office or wedding vows is practical rather than legal. In situations where the words cannot or should not be read by the oath-taker, it minimizes mistakes to have someone read them to you line by line. I was very grateful that the minister who married my wife and me insisted on this — I would very likely have stalled out if it were up to me and my memory at such a moment.

  23. happypundit said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    They should not have been embarrassed to read from index cards rather than depend on their memory for something as important as the Oath of Office.

  24. Michael J. said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    I too found it interesting that at the last line, instead of leading Obama through the oath, with "…so help me God," Roberts asked a question: "So help you God?" To which Obama replied in the affirmative. Essentially, a challenge question, rather than a helping hand.

  25. Roberta M. said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    How thoroughly appropriate that yet again a Bush appointee—Chief Justice John Roberts—should screw up his job!

  26. Robert said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    I once had to make a declaration to a lawyer regarding a legal arrangment with our company's bank. The lawyer asked me to raise my hand, because, she said, it helps people to remember actually taking the oath! It was an odd thing to do, and I do indeed remember it to this day.

    While President Obama and members of Congress are unlikely to forget who is the President, in this case it is actually helpful to the rest of the country to see someone actually raising their hand and taking an oath. It seals the relationship, I think.

    Particularly important for this president (many people might not truly believe that an African American could become president until that hand was raised) and the previous president (who had serious issues of legitimacy after a divisive electoral process).

  27. Mr Mxyzptlk said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:21 am

    I cannot believe they didn't rehearse this together. Why is it that Roberts didn't know whether Obama would want to add the traditional "so help me God" at the end? What if he didn't want to, would he have said "no thanks?"

  28. Ken Brown said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    John Cowan: "The reason for deaconing off (see OED, deacon v. 1) an oath of office or wedding vows is practical rather than legal"

    Yes. And in church we repeat our words very often – such as bidding prayers, where the pray-er ends each section with a standard phrase, and the rest of the congregation reply with the same one or another one, for anything from maybe two to twenty sections.

    The more I think about it the more I am convinced that this inauguration business is best analysed as an act of liturgy. Secular liturgy maybe (though an awful lot of prayers) but definitely liturgy. With the elements of liturgy – music, poetry, hymns, prayers, processions, the sermon…

    And Obama's speech used a liturgical style of English rather than a political style, IYSWIM. It was not quite the language of political speeches. Its rhetorical tropes were those of liturgy. Maybe if we had all been educated in formal rhetoric (as used to happen long ago) we would all have the concepts we need to talk about thise sort of thing. (Hoping that rhetoric is near enough to lingusitics to be on topic!)

  29. Raquel said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    Also, Roberts asked "Senator Obama" if he was ready to take the oath. Obama was no longer Senator (hence, Senator Roland Burris) but was "President-Elect".

  30. DW said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    All these comments are fascinating. I was wondering if the "repeat after me" formula for taking an oath is simply from an era of lower rates of literacy, when an average person couldn't be expected to read an oath.

  31. Ben said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Raquel, an elected official is often referred to by the final post he or she held, even after retirement. Hence, you can still talk about Secretary Rumsfeld. President-elect is not an office, and it was thus proper for Roberts to refer to Senator Obama.

  32. Don said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    A funny thing is Chief Justice Roberts, a strict constructionist, thought he had it memorized but didn't, and so violate strict construction by not reading it strictly to begin with. It must have been gently humbling for him and should give him a light line any time he teaches or writes on this most critical topic of Constitutional interpretation: "Of course, if you don't bother to use the words exactly as written, you have no chance of construing them strictly!"

    This flub also illustrates that often our memorized version of the Bible, the Declaration, our wedding vows or anything else dear to us is actually incorrect in our minds. "Oh, I thought it said…!"

  33. raff said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    One flub that I haven't seen mentioned: Roberts says: "Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?". Thing is, at that point Obama was already President.

    Regardless of the oath Obama became President at exactly 12:00pm as is constitutionally mandated. Surely Roberts, a constitutional 'scholar' would know this?

  34. DW said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    "One flub that I haven't seen mentioned: Roberts says: "Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?". Thing is, at that point Obama was already President."

    Well, but by that logic, the whole ceremony was pointless, and nothing anybody said mattered whether the words were right or wrong. So many interesting issues here . . .

  35. Nick Barnes said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    In fact, Obama was already president before Roberts started, having become president at noon. So if you want to fuss about "Senator Obama", you could say Roberts should have started "Mr President".

    To a foreigner such as myself, it's all splendid theatre (which requires Roberts' "Senator Obama" to open and "Mr President" to close), and the flub just added to it.

  36. raff said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    "Well, but by that logic, the whole ceremony was pointless."

    Yeah, pretty much. Just as most ceremonies are…

  37. Bryan said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Mr Gould,

    With all due respect, your comments seem to suggest that our earliest presidents were, at best, semiliterate I don't think I'd stake any of our later presidents against Mr Jefferson or Adams, for example, on a literacy test. Both men make today's so-called literary classes, by comparison, appear to be cretins. Jefferson alone, for example, was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, and he also studied Spanish, German, Gaelic (including Welsh), Old English, and Arabic. His mastery of the English language goes without saying. Hardly illiterate by anyone's standard. Again, with all due respect, you've fallen prey to what is often termed "chronological snobbery"–the notion arising in the 20th century that somehow we postmoderns are so much more advanced than previous generations.

  38. MNPundit said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    It was Roberts. The traditional formula is for the CJ to stop, right after saying the person's name. Allow him to repeat it, and then move on. That is what Obama was doing and why he started talking over Roberts. He was doing the Oath the traditional way.

    Then when Roberts kept um, screwing up (heh, take that John!) Obama really wasn't sure how exactly to proceed and flubbed a bit himself then just let Roberts mash his way through it and followed.

  39. LF said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    I think John Roberts owes President Obama a sincere apology for ruining the solemn moment of his inauguration. I didn't vote for him, but I felt all those citizens who had braved the weather to be there deserved a better show.

  40. QueenTiye said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    Regarding the "performative" quality of the oath, I'm sorry to be a little dense, but I still don't get it. By "performative" do you mean that the President-elect doesn't actually need to say the words in order for the oath to be binding? And – if President Obama became president at noon, regardless of oath, what are the actual requirements of the oath (i.e., what is the minimum standard for the constitution to have been fulfilled)?


  41. QueenTiye said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Mr Mxyzptlk: This one I know the answer to… :) Because of a lawsuit being brought to bear seeking injunctive relief from Chief Justice Roberts adding the words "so help me God," Obama and Roberts had already worked this part out – Obama specifically stating that he preferred that the extra words be a part of his swearing in ceremony.


  42. Chris said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    As long as we're piling on Roberts, it is also worth noting that the words, "so help me God". are NOT part of the oath. I believe the addition was made by Regan, and does no harm, but it is not THE "oath of office", which is spelled out explicitly in the Constitution and should not have been "administered" by Roberts, but rather left to Obama to add if he so chose. So much for "strict constructionism".

  43. Derek said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    The interesting question to me is not the political one. It's the illocutionary one: what kind of a speech act, exactly, was the administration and reciting of the oath at that ceremony? Remember, Obama became President at noon, before the oath was taken.

    And once you've answered that, then consider: do the interruption and the misplacement of 'faithfully' make an illocutionary difference?

  44. Karen said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    Linguistically I have a problem with "faithfully" splitting the verb as it does. To my ears it would flow more logically at the 3rd position – at the clause end. However, I really liked that Justice Roberts changed the "so help…God" to a question. The other way has never made sense to me. If we are going to expect an assent – it ought to be stated as a question!

  45. John said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Actually, the word faithfully is not an adverb modifier, but an concept amplifier, and so it does NOT need to be placed in conjuction with any particlular verb. It isn't specifically limited to any of the verbs
    in this or any other oath, but rather applies to the entire oath.

  46. Ewen Allison said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Actually, it's not enough for Obama to be President. True, that happened by dint Congress's review in open session of certificates signed and sealed by Electors meeting in their respective states and the clock hitting noon on January 20th. But the rubber finally meets the road when the President "enter on the Execution of his Office" — forgive the bad grammer in that last construction, but I wanted to quote letter-for-letter. He has to say the oath before he does what presidents alone can do. So in other words, the question is really whether he can lawfully exercise the all presidential powers instead of just holding the title of President.

    Obama clearly knew what the oath was, he clearly swore an oath, and the oath clearly had all the words in places where the original meaning is true. Does anyone think he would dare to say he doesn't have to "faithfully execute" the presidency? That would be political suicide.

    I suppose it's possible to fix the flub — if it needs to be fixed — by swearing correctly once. I wouldn't want that to happen, though, lest doubt be cast on official acts he's already done. If he swears correctly now, it will imply he needs to, and if he needs to now, detractors will holler, he needed to while he did something presidential. In other words, swearing correctly now would prove he acted without full authority before. Or, well, prove to the satisfaction of detractors, anyway. Since it's a non-issue anyway, why rock the boat?

    And Raquel, it's appropriate to refer to even ex-Senators as "Senator." Same is true of ambassadors.

  47. Mella said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    I think part of the "performative" aspect of these functions has much to do with a rather historical aspect. You see, many hundreds of years ago, kings and queens were crowned with great ceremony not just to stroke their egos, but so that all the country would know that there WAS a new king, and that it was George (or Philip, or Mary, or Elizabeth, or whomever . . . .) Much the same todo was done with any great life event, because records were not easily searched or even kept, so weddings and funerals and christenings (who are this child's parents, so we can make sure he/she doesn't accidentally marry a cousin one day)were big town or county affairs. You raise your hand to get attention,or walk down the aisle, or otherwise signal that the ceremony is starting. Everyone falls silent, because this is the Big Thing we've all come to see. You swear your oath, take your vow, in front of all the witnesses. They take not of what they've seen, and add it to the history they keep locked in their brains.

    The swearing-in ceremony can be seen as somewhat of a holdover, a tradition. Legally, at twelve noon Obama became president because in our modern day, we don't consider a spoken word to be as legally binding as saying, "the votes are counted, so at !2noon on 1/20, this person shall be president." But it is part of the pomp and circumstance of the day, and it is what, as Robert pointed out, people remember. Probably more so, now.

  48. JHo said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    I'm still hung up on that other mistake: "President TO the United States." Who makes a mistake like that? (CJ Roberts, apparently.) It's not a phrase anyone says, ever. If your mind is going to mess with your tongue, I can think of a dozen ways it would happen before this.

    In fact, a Google search of the phrase turns up the oath flub as the second hit. Its other occurrences tend to be on the order of "Welcome, Mr. President, to the United States …"

    In other words, it's a very odd speech mistake to make, in my mind. The first and most amusing thought I had was that Roberts, like that strange subset of conspiracy-mongers, remains unconvinced that our new President is, in fact, OF these United States, and that his subconscious sprung forth at an inopportune moment. I'd be curious for a more scientific explanation.

  49. ArmoredHindu said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    YES! Bush is still president!

  50. Conrad said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    If you leave out the Chief Justice, you have Obama saying the following:

    "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God."
    I don't think anyone could quarrel with that as a form of words, or a declaration satisfactory to the People. Let's move on!

  51. William Clark said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    If the Presidential oath had been completed before noon, would Obama have been President before noon?

  52. Tia said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Something I noticed, maybe no big deal, but Obama seemed to trip up after Roberts said "Barack HUSSEIN Obama" I thought because of the negative connotations most americans have with his middle name, they were going to use "Barack H. Obama" instead, just as he was introduced. (I thought I heard that somewhere on the news) And Obama seemed to be taken aback by that, as if it was done on purpose? Just a thought

  53. DW said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    "The swearing-in ceremony can be seen as somewhat of a holdover, a tradition. Legally, at twelve noon Obama became president because in our modern day, we don't consider a spoken word to be as legally binding as saying, "the votes are counted, so at !2noon on 1/20, this person shall be president." But it is part of the pomp and circumstance of the day, and it is what, as Robert pointed out, people remember. Probably more so, now."

    And apparently we still care quite a bit about all this ceremony and tradition, judging from the ooh-aahh everywhere about what was really an incredibly trivial flub. Ordinary people chattered about it all day long, and here we're acting like it's some deep fascinating scholarly matter . . .

  54. DW said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    "I'm still hung up on that other mistake: 'President TO the United States.' Who makes a mistake like that? (CJ Roberts, apparently.) It's not a phrase anyone says, ever. If your mind is going to mess with your tongue, I can think of a dozen ways it would happen before this."

    Don't you think people might just get nervous on live television with millions of people watching around the world?

  55. Mossy said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    Can you folks answer a possibly very stupid question? What does "So help you/me God" mean? Does it mean, May God help me in my task" or "May God help me if I fail my task?" (ie, I promise to do the task (or tell the truth), and if I don't, I will be punished and, that situation, may God have mercy on me?)

    Or does it have some other meaning?

    I never really thought about the phrase, but am looking at translations of the oath and realized I'm not sure what it means.
    Many thanks

  56. Danny said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    Give me a break. Do the naysayers every quit? They have to find something to argue about, and only 4 minutes into his presidency. We all know what the new President meant. It should be understood that he WAS taking the oath of office for the Presidency, not dog catcher. He is the President and we must come together in the time of economic hardship.

  57. Gail said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    During CNN's coverage of the luncheon after the swearing in ceremony, President Obama was greeting people in the Hall. When he reached the area where Chief Justice Roberts was standing you could see and hear the CJ apologize to President Obama for his mistakes in administering the oath. It seemed that The President graciously tried to make Roberts feel better by saying it was partly his fault and they were both nervous….for those who think it wasn't Robert's fault they should realize it was HE who was apologizing for mistakes. Why would he apologize if indeed it were not his fault? His mistakes were caused by trying to recite the oath from memory rather than using a written version as was done when VP Biden was adminstered- mistake free- his oath earlier in the ceremony. I think CJ Roberts was actually quite embarrased by his mistakes….

  58. JHo said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    "Don't you think people might just get nervous on live television with millions of people watching around the world?"

    You misunderstood my point. Of course they were nervous; I don't doubt that. What struck me was that this particular error was such an odd one to make. Usually when we slip up speaking, it seems, it's in the direction of something obvious or natural. But no one ever says "President to the United States." So I imagine it's not something that's lodged in our brains, waiting to slip out by accident when we're nervous. But then, my understanding of neurolinguistics is completely amateur, so if someone wants to explain why it makes sense, I'm eager to learn.

  59. mark kolessar said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    the oath of office is a verbal contract ..miss placed words are why lawyers make big money just looking for such things in a writen contract ..ask any contract lawyer about it .. words have differnt meanings depending on how and where they are used .. ..that is why there are two differnt dictionarys in use one is the ones we used in school a websters type it is of the common every use of words and a law dictionary blacks law dictionary ….ever wonder why large corperations have a large legal departments

  60. mary said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I would assume that having millions of people, people from likely all nations around the world watching your every moment, analyzing everything you say or do, clothing, hair, speech, even something as small as a smile or the lack of one at a time people think was appropriate, can all possibly be misinterpreted. This would make ANYONE nervous, even someone trained to do this. Ultimately I would think the US people have far more to be concerned with then a minor mistake in an oath. Mistakes are mistakes, he's the President and hopefully he will bring about some positive changes…otherwise God help us — because this country is already a disaster.

  61. M. Nestor said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    @Carol A. – Yes, that's what I was saying–since it was Obama, cerebral and unflappably cool next to Michelle O., I found the exchange cute, and this thread a relatively neutral smoking room ('No shop talk!')…. but as a few defensive comments in this thread and elsewhere, in response to petty punditry also elsewhere will attest, there's still those who could be a bit more Brechtian–or should I say, a bit more Obamanian (Obamian?): take a step back and smile, stop wittingly or unwittingly giving too much political power to the spectacle. But alas, I don't mean to sound so prescriptive.

  62. REDROSE said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Response to Chris. If the news channels on the day before the inaugaral
    were correct, "so help me God" was used by George Washington.
    According to their account of the use of that phrase, it has been used by all 44 Presidents.

  63. Greg said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    Just more arrogance from a Bush appointee ("Oh, no need to write this down, I can recite the oath from memory!"). Which he couldn't.

  64. Lowell said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    Look at it this way: G.W. Bush said the oath word-pefect twice and never faithfully defended the Constitution. In the end, it doesn't matter what they say, it's whether they do it.

    That said, it was Roberts' muck-up. But the oath was taken and we have a new President and we can all hope that he will abide by what he said, regardless of word order.

  65. Betsie said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    When Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, she mixed up two of his middle names whilst repeating the vows. I don't remember there being any comparable flap over whether or not they were therefore really married…

  66. Juan said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    @man from mars… good god, really? Really?

    Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that, had Obama taken the oath as it is written in the Constitution, and thereby repeated back a different formulation than Roberts gave him, man from mars would have somehow divined that the oath was invalid because it was not a verbatim repetition of what the Chief Justice had offered?

    I also think it's curious that you refer to it as "Obama's Oath," as though it wasn't the CJ who bungled it in the first place.

    Aghh! I'm violating Murphy's Law: never argue with a fool, people might not know the difference.

  67. Jim said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Clearly, the 20th Amendment made him president at noon of that day no matter what, provided the election has been confirmed and he's still alive. Since Article II of the Constitution requires that he take the oath "before he enter on the execution of his office," the very worst case that could be made is that if he begins executing his office before properly taking the oath, he breaks the law.

    The Constitution also informs us what we can do about scofflaw presidents. If anyone truly thinks that repositioning an adverb in the oath, while still retaining identical meaning, counts among "high crimes and misdemeanors," well, they can try to convince Congress to start impeachment proceedings. Good luck with that…

  68. Pete said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    Let's not forget that when James Earl Carter took the oath, he did so under the the name "Jimmy" Carter. Even though that was not his legal name it didn't seem to invalidate the oath.

  69. Paul said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    Someone said not political interest but illocutionary. Well I am back to politics. IMHO it was ego–struggle. Not overt mind you. The last comment has yet to be weighed, but I bet Obama will come out AT LEAST even.

    (This will show my bias:) Roberts interupted?, this was the first spark struck? –Interupted before Obama could say his complete name? Erm.

  70. Cara Spencer said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    Some people are speaking as if the oath is pointless unless it makes the oath-taker into the President (which clearly it doesn't according to the Constitution–that just happens at 12 noon on inauguration day). But this isn't the point of the oath at all. The Hippocratic oath doesn't make medical school graduates into doctors. That's not the point. The point is to make a public promise. Same with President Obama's oath.

  71. Herman Van de Velde said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    According to Mark Liberman, Coby Lubliner "wonders if Chief Justice Roberts' difficulty with saying "will faithfully execute" had something to do with a split-infinitive phobia that may at some point have been inculcated in him". Please, note that Chief Justice Roberts had apparently no difficulty with "and will to the best of my ability, preserve", also a split verb phrase.

  72. man from mars said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    OK, maybe third time's the charm here, let's try one final time:

    The change in adverbial placement has two distinct semantic effects.

    First, by moving the adverb from before the verb at the start of the oath to after the verb's direct object in the middle of the oath, its emphasis is diminished vis-a-vis the verb: the verb, not the adverb, becomes paramount. To see this effect, compare

    "He quickly ran to the store, the bank, and the arcade, and then had lunch" to

    "He ran to the store, the bank and the arcade quickly, and then had lunch."

    Clearly in the former case, the adverb has more emphasis; likewise here.

    Second, the echo of the adverb-verb phrase from the Take Care clause, that the President must "faithfully execute" the Laws is lost in the version that was uttered on the 20th.

    I realize that to those of you who are not Constitutional lawyers, the textual strategies of close reading of individual words and of using one part of a document to elucidate another may seem unfamiliar, but in fact whole bodies of law derive from this kind of careful reading of various clauses in the Constitution.

  73. Alan said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    After the prescribed oath, presidents have traditionally inserted "So help me God." My question: Have those who administered the oath traditionally prompted that line, as Roberts did, or have past presidents spoken it without prompting, as George Washington did?

  74. Mike Licht said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 3:06 am

    Did the second swear-in add another odd Roberts precedent?

    And what about non bis in idem ("double jeopardy")?


    Mike Licht

  75. Terry Hunt said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    FWIW, my impression while listening to the ceremony live on radio (3,000 miles away, in the bath) was that both parties were, at the crucial moment, distracted by some emergency-vehicle sirens starting up: they certainly caught my attention.

  76. merlyna said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 1:28 am

    oh thanks for writing about this! as a non-native speaker of English and not American, i was curious about this incident, both legally and linguistically. you answered my questions!!

  77. Janice Huth Byer said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 5:11 am

    Mossy, like you I've pondered the meaning of "so help me God", in part, because until this inauguration, I misheard it, owing to the stress on "me" as "so help my God" – as in "I will help my God" .

    "So help me God" is surely a literal request for divine guidance, with the stress properly on "help" and not a rhetorical plea for mercy akin to "heaven help me!". For one, oaths are invariably meant literally, and second, the oath is for the office not for the President's soul. The latter would befit an informal oath.

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