Reader GW wrote to ask about a construction in one of Barack Obama's recent speeches:
I was looking at the text of a campaign speech by the President today in Pittsburgh, and noted the following paragraph:
And then I think about Michelle's mom, and the fact that Michelle's mom and dad, they didn't come from a wealthy family. Michelle's dad, he worked a blue-collar job at the sanitary plant in Chicago. And my mother-in-law, she stayed at home until the kids got older. And she ended up becoming a secretary, and that's where she worked at most of her life, was a secretary at a bank.
I don't know if this text is as-delivered or the speechwriters' version, but what stuck out at me was the "NP, pronoun" construction seen here in the first three sentences. I don't think I'd use this construction, at least when speaking in English, but I'm not sure how common it is, or even what it's called. Has LL covered this one before? Does Obama do this a lot? Is it an identifying feature for any particular (sub)dialect?
LL has indeed covered this construction before: "Left dislocation", 9/24/2008. You can read all the details there, starting with this:
Executive summary: This construction goes back to Old English, and is still widely used in spoken English and in some regional varieties ; but its use in formal written English has been decreasing since about 1500, and is now either informal or archaic.
Left dislocation from subject position, as in the cited examples from President Obama, remains pretty common in spoken English. I don't think there's any particular geographical or sociological restriction. Here are a few recent examples from the media:
Barbara Rodriguez, "Paper maps: Amid GPS boom, nostalgia finds a place", AP 7/6/2012:
In late June, at the annual exposition of the Road Map Collectors Association in Dublin, Ohio, collector Terry Palmer was selling some of his beloved maps. The 65-year-old from Dallas, Texas, wore a T-shirt with intricate route lines of the United States on his chest, back and arms.
"The GPS of course now being so available, a lot of new cars are coming out with built-in GPS. People are utilizing those, and they don't want a road map," he said. "A lot of the younger generation, they're used to having their phone, and they don't need a road map to figure out where to go."
Charles Mahtesian, "DeFazio mocks GOP freshmen", Politico 7/5/2012:
Here’s how [Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio] describes freshman Rep. Billy Long’s role:
“This guy, he’s an auctioneer from Missouri, just came this time, and he starts reading it and he says, ‘We just want to expediate [sic] projects, and this is all about expediating things’ and he says the word ‘expediate’ five times, which of course is not a word, and I'm just like, 'What?'”
Jake Berry, "Supreme Court ruling on health care ignites local debate on law’s financial impact", Nashua Telegraph 6/29/2012:
“For a lot of companies, it may be less money to pay the fine and put everybody in the state (insurance) pool,” said David Scaer, general manager of the Nashua Country Club, which may now have to provide insurance to more of its 125 seasonal employees.
“Insurance is one of our most expensive line items, so you look at the choices,” he said. “Do you limit employees to working less than the allotted amount of hours? These people, they need their jobs and they need their hours. It’s decisions that, unfortunately, we’ll have to look at.”
Paul Hagen, "Phils' Class A rotation loaded with potential", MLB.com 7/6/2012:
"Having that confidence and that ability to maintain consistency is so important. Having your rhythm in your delivery, things like that, they're just little things that you wouldn't notice from the crowd. But as a pitcher they're very, very important." [Quote from pitcher Jesse Biddle]
Vytas Mazeika, "Local soccer teams can learn from the best", Palo Alto Daily News 7/6/2012:
"Being able to keep the ball like that, it sounds easy enough," said Menlo-Atherton boys soccer coach Jacob Pickard, whose team finished one game shy of an undefeated season in the winter.
An early discussion of the construction can be found in Elinor Ochs Keenan and Bambi Schieffelin, "Foregrounding Referents: A Reconsideration of Left Dislocation in Discourse", BLS 1976 (now available on line thanks to eLanguage); and Ellen Prince has written some justly famous papers on the topic, e.g. "On the Functions of Left-Dislocation in English Discourse", in Akio Kamio, Ed., Directions in Functional Linguistics, 1997; "On the Limits of Syntax, with reference to Left-Dislocation and Topicalization", in Culicover and McNally, Eds., Syntax and Semantics, 1998.
I'm confident that American presidents at least since Truman have used this construction, and probably all of them going back to Washington would exhibit it, if we had access to samples of their more informal speech.
I should add that some forms of left dislocation — though rarely the simple NP [PRONOUN X] version exemplified above — continue to be used in more formal varieties of English. Ellen Prince cites this example from Glass and Foster, Cacti and succulents for the amateur, 1976:
There are many groups of cacti worthy of collection. Even opuntias, the plants which tend to give cacti a bad name, with their nasty little barbed hairs or glochids, which are used for 'itching powder', and sharp, barbed spines which go into one's flesh much more easily than they come outi, even they have much to offer and can make an interesting—if forbidding—collection.
As an archaic example of the simple dislocation from subject position, consider Robert Burns' "My love, she's but a lassie yet", or the anonymous ballad "Sir Patrick Spens":
The king he sits in Dumferling
Drinking the blude reid wine:
'O where will I get a gud sailor,
That'l sail the ships of mine?'
And a train of lords and ladies,
The little maiden met;
And the Prince, he walked beside her,
The downcast-eyed Babette.
And never in the copsewood
Was the little maiden seen,
For she dwells all time in Elf-land,
As the good King Charming's queen.
For more on the history, see Javier Pérez Guerra & David Tizón-Couto, "‘These hands, they are apt enough to dislocate and tear thy flesh’: On Left Dislocation in the Recent History of the English Language", in Shaer et al., Dislocated elements in discourse 2008; and David Tizón-Couto, "A corpus-based analysis of left dislocation in late modern English", Estudos Linguísticos 2008.