We have been clear that we will

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Politicians who have to assert some proposition P often take advantage of the opportunity to flap their mouths a bit more by asserting not just that P but also that they have consistently maintained that P in the past. It functions as a kind of gratuitous self-affirmation regarding consistency over time, and a pre-emptive defense to any possible charge of flip-flopping. The habit has spawned what appears to me to be an entirely new construction. The spokesman for UK prime minister Gordon Brown said yesterday (in a defensive response to something the governor of the Bank of England had said about Britain being unable to afford another round of debt-fueled stimulus to the economy): "We have been clear that we will do whatever it takes to see us through the global downturn." It seems to me that this is almost entirely a feature of minister-speak, and to a lesser extent corporate-speak ("Certainly Microsoft is a well-respected and successful company and we have been clear that we are fully prepared to do a deal with them", said a Yahoo! release recently). Lots of people think (ever since Orwell's "Politics and the English language") they are highly sensitive to new developments of government and business jargon. Yet I don't believe that "We have been clear that P" has been discussed in language forums before (I could be wrong). Despite all the grumbling about newfangled clichés (often not so newfangled), when a new syntactic construction limited to organizational jargon comes along, apparently people don't spot it.

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  1. Plegmund said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    A slightly surprising one, since "We have been clear that x" could be read as implying that we're not any more. But I suppose Ministers and corporate folk like the air of weary dismissal, the resemblance to "We've been through all that".

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    The novelty here is the locution "be clear that", meaning something like "be on record as asserting". One curious thing about this expression is that it doesn't seem to exist in the simple present with this meaning ("I am clear that …").

    Expressed in other ways, the rhetorical move of drawing attention to one's history of asserting something has been common for a long time, as Geoff suggests. The force seems to be partly the "gratuitous self-affirmation" that Geoff identifies, but there is often also a whiff of "What I tell you three times is true".

    Thus in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris says

    "I knew what all this meant, for the Servants' dinner bell was ringing at the very moment over our heads, and as I hate such encroaching people, (the Jacksons are very encroaching, I have always said so,—just the sort of people to get all they can.) I said to the boy directly—(a great lubberly fellow of ten years old you know, who ought to be ashamed of himself), I'll take the boards to your Father, Dick; so get you home again as fast as you can."

    And in Benjamin Vaughn's 1783 letter to Benjamin Franklin we read

    "For the furtherance of human happiness, I have always maintained that it is necessary to prove that man is not even at present a vicious and detestable animal; and still more to prove that good management may greatly amend him …"

    Or in Samuel Richardson's 1754 Sir Charles Grandison:

    "Modern critics are undetermined about them; but, for my part, I have always maintained that Chints, Bullbulls, Morees, and Ponabaguzzy's, are of nobler and more generous uses than Doorguzees or Nourfurmannys: Not but I hold against Byrampauts in favour of Niccannees and Boralchauders. Only I wish, that so accurate a judge would instruct me, why Tapzils and Sallampores have given place to Neganepauts? And why Bejatapoutz should be more esteemed than the finer fabrick of Blue Chelloes?"

    The (real or fictional) sources of these phrases are not government or corporate officials, but they're presented (or present themselves) as being somewhat officious, in the sense of "inclined to assert authority in a self-important or pompous way, esp. with regard to petty or trivial matters".

    Another reason for this gesture is to sugar-coat a difficult statement by depicting it as routine. Thus in Martin Chuzzlewit

    "'There you make a great mistake, sir,' returned Mrs. Todgers, in the same strain. 'As many of the gentlemen and I have often said, you are too sensitive. That's where it is. You are of too susceptible a nature; it's in your spirit.'"

  3. acilius said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    "One curious thing about this expression is that it doesn't seem to exist in the simple present with this meaning ("I am clear that …")." Interesting- I often hear, and sometimes say, "to be clear on" meaning "to understand fully." Granted, that construction doesn't usually introduce an indirect statement, but I wonder if "We have been clear" is supposed to suggest, not only "we have publicly said," but also "we have fully understood."

  4. Chris said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    You will often hear British politicians (and the journalists interviewing them) saying things along the lines of 'I am quite clear that x (/on x)'. In my own variety of British English, this is ungrammatical in the intended interpretation: something like 'there is no doubt in my mind that x is the case'. I had assumed that this was a novelty, and, moreover, a devilish attempt on the part of (New Labour) politicians to produce in their audience the belief that they (the politicians) tend to express themselves with clarity (an evident falsehood). This mistaken belief could potentially arise as a result of the salience of what I take to be the usual meaning of to be clear: to convey one's ideas with clarity, not to obfuscate. However, as is so often the case in such matters, a look at the OED entry on 'clear' shows that this New Labour spin use of 'clear' is in fact rather ancient:

    12. Of persons: Having a vivid or distinct impression or opinion; subjectively free from doubt; certain, convinced, confident, positive, determined. Const. {dag}in (an opinion, belief), {dag}of (a fact), as to, on, about (a fact, course of action), for (a course of action); that. I am clear that = it is clear to me that. [So in 12th c. Fr.]

    1604 HIERON Wks. (1624) I. 500, I am cleere in it, that many then in that darkness did..‘See day at a very little hole’. 1628 SIR B. RUDDIERD in Fuller Ephemeris Parl. (1654) 155, I am clear, without scruple, that what we have resolved is according to law. 1645 E. PAGITT Heresiogr. (1661) 208 He is so cleer for the abolishing of the Jewes day, and the succeeding of the Lord's day. 1727 J. ASGILL Metam. Man 27 His disciples were not so clear in their belief of him. 1768 ROSS Helenore 67 (Jam.), Dwell ye there? That of their dwelling ye're so very clair. 1769 MRS. HARRIS in Lett. 1st Earl Malmesb. (1870) I. 179, I am not clear as to the particulars. c1776 A. MURPHY in G. Colman Posth. Lett. (1820) 204 Of this I am clear, that, if it stood over to another year, etc. 1791 BOSWELL Johnson an. 1781 Mch. 30 We were, by a great majority, clear for the experiment. 1793 SMEATON Edystone L. §142 Being clear in the operation..I proceeded to the business without apprehension of difficulty. 1815 F. BURNEY Diary & Lett. (1846) VII. 181 About the middle of July{em}but I am not clear of the date. 1833 H. MARTINEAU Brooke F. ii. 25, I..am not clear on the point. 1842 J. H. NEWMAN Ch. of Fathers 106 You may be clear..with whom it is fitting to hold communion. 1849-50 ALISON Hist. Europe XII. lxxix. 78 Moreau..was clear for reverting to the Constitution of 1792. 1853-9 MACAULAY Biog. (1860) Introd. 10, I am not clear that the object is a good one. 1867 FREEMAN Norm. Conq. I. App. 763, I am not quite clear about the date. 1884 Manch. Exam. 21 May 5/1 As to the necessity of including Ireland in its scope he was clear.

    This doesn't, however, stop me believing that the regularity with which you hear politicians use 'clear' in this way, in comparison with its apparent infrequency in other discourse contexts, is the result of some dreadful cabal of spin merchants.

  5. Eric Baković said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    Coincidentally, in this NYT piece on Obama's press conference yesterday (emphasis added):

    Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, "as I said before" — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.

  6. Bloix said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    "We have been clear that" has been used in judicial opinions for at least a decade to imply a consistent body of precedent. I found these using google; a search on a specialized (pay) site like LEXIS or Westlaw would have older examples, if there are any.

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F3/108/108.F3d.1089.95-17107.html

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/95-1608.ZD.html

    http://libraries.vermont.gov/sites/libraries/files/supct/174/2000-182op.txt

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F3/382/382.F3d.1097.03-12572.html

  7. bianca steele said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    I think there is a construction, "we made it clear (to them) (that)," which this might be shorthand for. As in, "we described to them what needed to be done and we were clear that they had to do so." Or, alternately, "we discussed what we wanted them to do and we were clear about that."

    Or, it might mean simply, "no further clarification is needed." I doubt there's any influence from the scientologist use of the word to mean "fully analyzed," but I suppose there is always the possibility of a pun.

    What you wrote above is interesting, but I don't have time for more right now.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    "Expressed in other ways, the rhetorical move of drawing attention to one's history of asserting something has been common for a long time, as Geoff suggests. The force seems to be partly the 'gratuitous self-affirmation' that Geoff identifies, but there is often also a whiff of 'What I tell you three times is true."

    "For when Philip was marching about, subduing Illyrians and Triballians and some also of the Greeks, and gaining many considerable accessions of power, and certain citizens of the states (Æschines among them) took advantage of the peace to go there and be corrupted; all people then, against whom he was making such preparations, were attacked.

    "If they perceived it not, that is another question, no concern of mine. I was forever warning and protesting, both at Athens and wheresoever I was sent."

    Demosthenes On the Crown

  9. Michael W said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    The salient thing to me about Brown's statement is that the historical reference is not the same as the present statement. Instead, it's just the generic "whatever it takes". The present statement doesn't mind plainly stating that the past statement was not, at least not in detail, what is being said now. It then uses the 'have been clear' to lend it the air of historical importance.

    All it amounts to is saying, "we said in the past that we'd do something, and here it is the future and we're doing something!". He could spend the money on a giant golden statue or dance the foxtrot on the roof of Parliament, all the while saying "We have been clear that we will do whatever it takes…" and it'd be just as applicable.

  10. dr pepper said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    "We have always been at war with Eurasia."

    Also, for a present tense use there's "now let me make things perfectly clear".

  11. Andrew W said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    For this British English speaker, the present tense form "I am clear that P", meaning "I assert P without equivocation", is completely unremarkable and certainly not ungrammatical. I wouldn't even have immediately identified it as politico-speak until reflecting on it just now, although thinking about it, it certainly does belong to that sort of public-speaking, rhetorical register. "[I am/We are/Our party is] clear that the Government should take action to inject liquidity into the financial system" is fine, but it's distinctly odd to say "[I am/We are/They are] clear that we should go to the pub tonight".

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Just how does Mark Liberman fish up examples from Jane Austen, Dickens, Richardson, and a letter to Benjamin Franklin that all illustrate this construction? Will the conjuror please explain his retrieval tricks?

  13. dw said,

    March 26, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    I can't the the only person who instantly thought of Dan Quayle's celebrated quote:

    "I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future"

  14. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:15 am

    I wasn't aware of this new cliché ("we have been clear . . .") until reading about it in GKP's post, but now I find two occurrences of it in one news report. See
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/technology/digital-living/2292861/UK-to-spy-on-Facebook

  15. Patrick Joseph Gillard said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 4:45 am

    I am coming to this thread late because I wanted to find if anybody had already pointed out the horrible and clearly PR-engineered locution 'I am clear that…' (as used by politicians, almost exclusively)

    I think you are absolutely right, Geoffrey, that people can fail to spot syntactic locutions that are just as weaselly as any outright piece of noun newspeak. Because these locutions are somehow *around* the content words in what people say, it can make it harder to realise that you are being lied to.

    Can I explain what I think is the intention behind the politician's present-tense locution "I am clear that.." (as in, for example, "I am clear that we need to reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels..")

    The 'I am clear that…' is an attempt to merge all the benefits of clear understanding, clear decision-making and clear expression without actually stating or asserting any of these things. It is a deliberate fudge, just as 'issues around' is a fudge that mashes together the idea of problem, benefit, solution, difficulty.

    The 'I am clear that…' locution is also steeped elbow-deep in one vile PR sin and syndrome: that of tactically using words which have a positive 'feel' to them, in this case the word 'clear'. Perhaps the idea that you can improve the feel of a piece by using positive adjectives is indeed well-founded. We cannot abandon our memory of all the positive connotations and collocations that go with a 'good-sounding' adjective. It is hard, when listening to a liar using positively-charged words, to remember that all meaning, truth and beauty has been sucked out of those words when they pass his lips. But we must try.

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