The error in Obama's inauguration speech

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President Obama's inauguration speech contains an error that may well be of linguistic origin. He said: "Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath". That is false. Obama is the 43d American to take the Presidential oath. Obama's slip is probably due to the fact that he is accounted the 44th President.

The meaning of the term "Nth US President" is rather odd. It does not mean "the Nth distinct individual to serve as President", for in that case Obama would be the 43d President. Nor does it refer to the term count, meaning, "the President who served during the Nth term". If that were true, George Washington would be both the first and second President since he served two terms, from 1789 until 1797. John Adams, who served a single term, from 1797-1801, would be the third President, not, as he is actually accounted, the second. Obama would be the 55th President. The actual rule is that a President who serves more than one term is counted only once, provided that the terms be contiguous. That means that the "Nth President" will be the same as the "Nth individual to serve as President" only if no one serves two non-contiguous terms. That has happened once: Grover Cleveland was President from 1885-1889, lost the election to Benjamin Harrison, then won again in 1893. Cleveland is accounted the 22nd President and also the 24th President. Obama is thus the 44th President in the odd accounting of Presidents, but he is only the 43d person to be President.

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37 Comments »

  1. Ransom said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    Heraclitus might argue that in 1893 Grover Cleveland was a different American.

  2. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    It's kind of sad that the first posting about an inauguration that contained such a great and powerful speech (followed by a demonstration on how NOT to give a speech or read poetry) to appear on this blog, devoted as it is to language, is about a factual error and not about language at all.

    All right, so the error is easier to post about quickly. I guess I was just expecting more.

    Presumably, Obama has been let in to some state secrets in the past weeks. Perhaps he knows something about the Grover Cleveland who won in 1893 that the general public isn't supposed to know? Conspiracy theory anyone?

  3. Lazar said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    But you should surely devote a post to John Roberts' oath issues!

  4. Andrew Nguyen said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    "But you should surely devote a post to John Roberts' oath issues!"

    Agreed!

  5. Thomas Thurman said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Fourty-four

    Psst.

  6. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Ask and ye shall receive.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1039

  7. Bill Poser said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    Andy Hollandbeck,

    Yes, it's a factual error, but one very likely of linguistic origin. If "Nth President" meant what we expected it to mean, the inference from "Obama is the 44th President" to "Obama is the 44th person to be President" would be valid. The inference fails because of the peculiar definition of "Nth President".

  8. Peter Seibel said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    I wonder if Obama knew that he was technically wrong but decided that more listeners would be scratching their heads if he had said "forty-three Americans" when everyone is well aware he's the 44th president and few people are up on the weird counting scheme used. If so, presumably he was wedded enough to the line to not want to cut it altogether or recast it in some way to make it technically correct. Writing is tough.

  9. Betty said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Sorry to be carping (I LOVE Obama), but I can't help finding it distressing that he said something like this: … there's nothing so (adjective).. than…. I hope the official published speech will have a syntactically correct version of that sentence.

    Did Obama just relax into an impromptu comment? That seems odd since he knows his speech will go down in history no matter what.

  10. Kit said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I agree with Peter Seibel–I think Obama knew it was incorrect but went with the less confusing (and less incorrect-seeming) option. I wonder if there's any sociolinguistic research into that kind of choice by speakers.

  11. Nathan said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Just a little pedantic nit:
    Grover Cleveland won again in 1892, not 1893. He took office for the second time in 1893.
    Just like Obama won in 2008, but wasn't president until today.

  12. Dylan said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    Dianne Feinstein made a similar error, but for a different reason: she said that there has been a peaceful transition of power 44 times. There have been only 43 transitions, since the first election was not a transition…

  13. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    Dylan: Well, the first presidency was a transition, but it certainly wasn't peaceful.

  14. MJ said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    Betty, either they did fix it or you imagined it. I searched two different transcripts and here are all the sentences containing 'than':

    "They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction."

    "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began."

    "Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year."

    All of those are completely grammatical, as far as my intuitions are concerned.

  15. Paul said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    Sure we are nitpicking, but it makes you wonder if they… whether it be President Obama or his speechwriter… cannot get simple facts like that straight in a very important and historically important speech, what little facts are they going to miss in the next intelligence report regarding the next terrorist threat to this country? I for one, as soon as I heard him say that, was completely thrown off and could not concentrate on the remainder of the speech because I kept thinking, "That is not right.". Good thing I recorded it so I can listen to it again tonight!

  16. אקלקטיקה אהובתי » 43, בעצם said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    [...] 23:29 שפה עברית כפי שמספר בלוגים מיהרו לציין, וביניהם ה-Language Log חביבי, אובמה הוא לא, בעצם, הנשיא ה-44. אם נדייק, מאז [...]

  17. Mark A. Mandel said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    Paul:

    In an inaugural speech, unlike an intelligence report (or so we hope), presentation and rhetoric are of high importance. I vote with Peter Seibel on this.

  18. JD said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    Thanks for noticing that too; thought I was the only one. Is the press that inept that none of them (not even Fox) caught this? It’s minor, sure, and shouldn’t detract from the significance of the day, but are the media professionals that ignorant? Sorry, that was rhetorical. ;^)

  19. From Pop Culture’s Heart, I Stab at Thee « My Secret Boyfriend said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    [...] 20, 2009 by joydashz Half-way though reading this entry on lovely Language Log about how Obama is not the 44th American to take the oath even though he is [...]

  20. Mark F. said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

    Dylan and Andy: Actually, the transfer of power to Washington (and Congress) was a peaceful transfer of power. Before Washington's presidency, the U.S. was operating under the Articles of Confederation. The replacement of them by the Constitution was a basically peaceful process.

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

    The "44th American" line was not the only error in the speech. In setting the scene for quoting the words that "the father of our nation ordered… to be read to the people," Obama said "The capital was abandoned." Of course in 1776 there was no federal capital, and Trenton (which is where the battle in question took place) wasn't even the capital of New Jersey yet. The President seemed to confuse the Revolutionary War with the War of 1812.

    Not attributing the quoted words to their author, Thomas Paine, was a different kind of error. It led people (e.g. Neal Conan of NPR) to believe that Obama was quoting George Washington.

  22. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:35 am

    Coby, I was trying to figure out the "capital was abandoned" line too. To give Obama and his speechwriters the benefit of the doubt, I think the reference was to Philadelphia being abandoned. By the time of the Battle of Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776, the Continental Congress had left Philadelphia for Baltimore to avoid the British advance. Of course, that meant that Baltimore was technically the proto-nation's capital until the Continental Congress returned to Philly on March 4, 1777, but I think we can overlook that technicality.

  23. Ricky said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    I don't think it's fair to assume that the President somehow confused the Revolutionary War with the War of 1812. I think it's more likely that he was simply referring to New York City as "the capital," which it was for a brief period after the war.

    In December of 1776 the British captured New York City and Washington was forced to retreat to New Jersey where he was joined by Thomas Paine. The army eventually settled in Pennsylvania, and it was there that Paine wrote the words Obama quoted. Before crossing the Delaware, Washington had Paine's words read to the soldiers.

    Obama never implied that Washington wrote the words, he merely said that "the father of our country" ordered them "to be read to the people."

  24. Dick Margulis said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 4:51 am

    But before Obama spoke, Rick Warren did his bit, with two errors, one related to the subject of this post. He first said this was the 44th peaceful transfer of power. I count 43 (from number 1 to number 2 counting as the first). He also described Obama's father as an African immigrant to the US. I may be wrong, but I don't think Obama's father immigrated.

  25. Dante said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    Rick Warren's prayer included

    Now today, we rejoice not only in America's peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.

    This was (arguably) the 43rd peaceful transfer of power.

  26. joe.shuren said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    I believe there was an English language (spelling) mistake in the address, or the official and CQ transcript. "At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents."

    On your computer you might note a red wavy line under "forbearers." However, the spelling is correct. It is just that it is the spelling for a word that sounds like the correct word, "forebears."

    What is the difference between the words? "Forebear" means ancestor, while "forbearer" means abstainer. The words and their etymologies and meanings are distinct as the spelling indicates.

    I think the origin of the confusion was from good intentions. Lincoln's "forefathers" sounds too sexist now, while "forefathers and [invented] foremothers" sounds ludicrous. Looking at "forebears" reminds one of Good News Bears. "Forbearers" sounds and looks solemn, as the President tried to be while all around him were smiling.

    Apparently John F. Kennedy's speechwriters made the same mistake in his Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961. "For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbearers prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago."

    Now the question is whether English professionals ought to pass without notice such a change in the language, or instead insist that spelling of official documents be correct, that is, words used in their intended meanings. In the oral language, I think there is little problem, as listeners can understand it from the context. However, in written, published, official documents, there might be problems. Haven't wars been fought over disputed meanings of one word?

    I would hate to have some 8th grader see this word engraved in stone some day and think that maybe the President has the power to craft his own spelling and not care about her English teacher's grade.

    Obviously President Obama meant to say "forebear" (ancestor) instead of "forbearer" (abstainer). If our forebears had forborne us, we wouldn't be here to argue about the words.

    I wrote to The New York Times and CQ Transcriptions and whitehouse.gov but got no response. What do you think?

  27. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    I actually thought he said "forebears," and that the transcript was wrong. I'll have to go listen again.

  28. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Andy Hollandbeck: I actually thought he said "forebears," and that the transcript was wrong.

    The advance copy distributed by his staff had "forbearers".

    As for what he said, it sounds like "forebears" to me:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/ObamaInauguralX1.mp3.

  29. Chris said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Not all of the other transfers of power were peaceful either: several resulted from successful assassinations, a distinctly un-peaceful event.

  30. Gary said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    …and one certainly, possibly two, of the transitions are generally reckoned as usurpations.

  31. Richard said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Chris, while it's true that the assassinations are violent, the power acquisition of the vice-president has always been peaceful.

  32. Debra MacLaughlan-Dumes said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I'd sure like to hear someone from the Language Log comment John McWhorter's article in The New Republic re: Obama's "Black English":

    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=c96cbed1-cec4-4c7c-8465-6dcd1f82e9cd

    I'm not sure there aren't a few borrowings from FDR's cadence, which to my ear was not what they're describing.

  33. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    Debra MacLaughlan-Dumes: "I'd sure like to hear someone from the Language Log comment [on] John McWhorter's article in The New Republic re: Obama's "Black English""

    I guess I should remind you that John McWhorter IS someone from the Language Log.

    We are not an Entity. We're a bunch of (very loosely associated) individual people posting about our own stuff.

  34. Yuval Pinter said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 7:15 am

    How about "Nth person to enter the presidency" for a natural perception of this enumeration?

  35. Betty said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    MJ: Thanks for setting me straight on the "than" issue–apparently I was too excited to do my usual automatic simultaneous listening-and-sentence-diagramming. All I can say in my defense is that I've become a bit anxious about Obama's use of language since more than once I've heard him use a subjective pronoun incorrectly –as in "President Bush invited Michelle and I to the White House." Why is such a thing so prevalent these days, even among brilliant hyper-educated people like Obama. Does he just say what he hears–or is he condescending to people who he believes will think he's in the "Me and him went to the mall" crowd? Either way, I wish he's just get it right. (I suppose he has a few more significant concerns these days. :-) Still…

  36. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    Betty: "I've become a bit anxious about Obama's use of language since more than once I've heard him use a subjective pronoun incorrectly – as in "President Bush invited Michelle and I to the White House." Why is such a thing so prevalent these days, even among brilliant hyper-educated people like Obama."

    Some earlier Language Log postings on nominative coordinate objects are here and here. The usage isn't recent. Although it's widely disapproved of, it's simply a variant usage that appears in many people's speech. (There's a large literature on the phenomenon.)

  37. Betty said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    –well, thanks, Arnold Zwicky, for the "here" and "here" tips–bit I still maintain that I'm not a victim of the "recency fallacy"–I suppose I'll have to search for sociological reasons for what I'm convinced is WAY more common these days than it was, say, 20 years ago–at least among traditionally educated people. (I'm guessing that the elimination of sentence-diagramming in middle-school education is at the heart of the matter.)

    ps: Here and there Shakespeare (or his transcribers) breaks what we now consider a rule, but he's SHAKESPEARE–he (and only he, as far as I'm concerned) can do whatever the heck he wants to.

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