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January 28th, 2009

Execute ... faithfully vs. faithfully execute / cursive writing / specs

by Barbara Wallraff


Jody Spear, of Harborside, Maine, writes: “I expect you’re hearing from readers with questions about the position of adverbs, as publicized by Chief Justice John Roberts’s administration of the presidential oath to Barack Obama. The chief justice misquoted the official text, but otherwise his phrasing -- ‘execute the office ... faithfully,’ rather than ‘faithfully execute’ -- is defensible, no?”


Dear Jody: Let’s consider the whole phrase. Roberts prompted Obama to say, “I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully,” whereas the oath specified in the Constitution is “I will faithfully execute the office of President to the United States.”

In your abridged version, it’s obvious that “faithfully” modifies “execute,” because they’re separated by only two words. In the full version, though, they’re separated by seven or eight -- depending on how you count “United States.” For clarity’s sake, that’s a bit farther apart than a verb and its modifier should be. If you don’t think distance matters, consider this version: “I will execute the office of President to the United States of America in the year of our Lord two thousand and nine faithfully.”

People sometimes refuse to use phrases like “will faithfully execute” because they seem to follow the same pattern as split infinitives (“to faithfully execute”). This objection doesn’t hold up. As the usage expert Bryan A. Garner explains in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” “Most authorities squarely say that the best place for the adverb is in the midst of the verb phrase.”




Andrea Lubershane Gardner, of Evanston, Ill., writes: “I recently helped a friend’s 10-year-old do her homework because their DSL wasn’t working and she was using my computer. I was shocked to see her writing in block letters. She said her older sister, a freshman in high school, doesn’t use cursive either. I researched this and found a huge controversy there, about which I’ve heard nothing in general conversation. Will kids be able to read the Declaration of Independence?”


Dear Andrea: Right you are that writing in cursive, or longhand, is on the wane. Many kids already have trouble reading it, and of the 1.5 million students who wrote essays as part of the SAT in 2006, just 15 percent wrote them in cursive.

So what? Well, cursive is a more efficient way to write than block lettering. And we’re all still called on to read it, at least occasionally. Schools are so frantic to teach students the material they’ll need to pass standardized tests that penmanship is getting short shrift. I suspect this is one of those useful but not critical things that kids won’t learn in the future unless their parents teach them.




Christopher Beck, of Detroit, writes: “When abbreviating the word ‘specifications,’ I know that ‘spec.s’ doesn’t look right, but do you use ‘specs.’ or just forget the period altogether?”


Dear Christopher: When you abbreviate “advertisement,” “gymnasium” or “mathematics,” I’m sure you don’t write “ad.” or “gym.” or “math.” The same applies to “specs,” and never mind that it’s plural.

The tricky thing about this word is how to turn it into a verb, meaning “to write specifications for.” “He spec’d the job,” “He spec’ed the job” and “He specced the job” all look terrible. They’re all in use, and unfortunately, I have nothing better to suggest -- so take your pick.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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