Verb tense semantics and how to lie about troop levels

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Steve Pinker swung by Edinburgh yesterday to deliver a masterful Enlightenment Lecture to a crowd of roughly a thousand, and to sign copies of The Stuff of Thought for eager fans. As usual, both on the stage and off, Steve had a fund of funny anecdotes, surprising facts, and new ideas about language; and he pointed out to me that Language Log had not yet noted a new and quite astonishing political appeal to semantics in the news, by John McCain’s campaign spinners.

At a Town Hall meeting on May 28, McCain expressed confidence in the “Surge” policy on Iraq troop levels (which started in February 2007): “I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels.” The actual facts are that the present troop levels in Iraq are around 155,000, while the January 2007 numbers were 128,569. That is a 26,000 increase from pre-Surge levels. McCain made a flatly untrue statement. So what did his staff do? McCain’s foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann dismissed it as mere linguistic nitpicking on the part of the journalists: “It’s the essence of semantics,” he claimed. “If you’re going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we’re going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign.” He apparently meant that troop levels will come down to below 2006 levels in the future, and that is what his boss should be understood to have meant. This is unbelievable mendacity, even by the standard of presidential campaign politics.

The truth conditions of the present perfect tense are reasonably simple. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels is true if and only if from the perspective of the present point in time the drawing down to pre-surge levels is already completed, at some point prior to now. (In addition, the use of the present perfect presents that statement as relevant to the situation now, rather than merely being a statement about the past.) Plans for drawing down in the future (the Pentagon is planning to get down to 140,000 by the end of July — not that this get us down to pre-surge levels) cannot possibly make McCain’s claim true.

The right course for McCain here would have been to admit an error. But amazingly, instead he chose to brazen it out. He told reporters on May 30:

“I said we had drawn down. I said we have drawn down and we have drawn down three of the five brigades. We have drawn down three of the five brigades. We have drawn down the marines. The rest will be home the end of July. That’s just facts, the facts as I stated them.

But as the Fact Checker blog at the Washington Post noted, before awarding him a score of three Pinocchios for lying, that is not the facts as he had stated them; the preposition phrase complement to pre-surge levels is absolutely crucial. (In grammatical terms, it’s a complement, not a modifier. It doesn’t just add extra color or detail, it’s a part of what is actually claimed.) McCain can’t just drop it from his account of what he said, as if it made no difference. What he did on May 30 was to lie about the false claim that he made on May 28.

But if lying his way out of it is the way his campaign thinks he should go, then if I may be permitted a little creative amateur exercise in campaign mendacity, I think the right way to go would be to shift the topic to the first two sentences he uttered, and set the third sentence in that context. Notice the indirect speech construction McCain used: he said, “I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding.” Consider the literal truth conditions of that. Can he look you in the eye and tell you the Surge is succeeding? Yes he can! He told an audience that with a straight face, looking them in the eye. So now take the third sentence, We have drawn down to pre-surge levels, and interpret it too as being in the scope of I can look you in the eye and tell you ____. Can he look you in the eye and tell you that we have drawn down to pre-surge levels? Yes he can! He did it! Therefore what he said was literally true!

That would be the way to use linguistics to spin McCain’s lie and turn it into something that could be claimed as a truth. If the Republican party (or any other) would like to employ any of us Language Log writers as political operatives, phrase twisters, emergency semanticists, or spinmeisters, we will be happy to consider serious proposals, accompanied by serious consultancy rates. We will probably not take up such positions with much enthusiasm, however, and we will probably insist on using false names. In addition, our contracts as political liars will have to have a clause allowing us to continue speaking the truth here on Language Log itself.

Comments are closed, because Lord knows, if we allow Language Log to turn into a politics blog during the coming five months we will need to buy more server storage. However, comments at the Fact Checker blog are open, so you can go there.



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