Presidential inaugurals: the form and the content

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If you've ever found yourself thinking that Language Log writers seem concerned with form rather than function — that they obsess about the details of how things are put, to the exclusion of concern with the core content that really matters, and that they will probably miss the historic excitement of this January 20 grubbing around for prepositions — you need to take a look at the following passage by Jill Lepore of Harvard. It's from her article in the January 12 New Yorker on the language of presidential inaugural addresses. Lepore makes reference to claims in Elvin Lim's book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency that American presidential inaugural addresses have been getting stupider, with stupidity being measured by Flesch Readability Test word- and sentence-length criteria:

The past half century of speechwriters, most of whom trained as journalists, do favor small words and short sentences, as do many people whose English teachers made them read Strunk and White's 1959 "Elements of Style" ("Omit needless words") and Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English language" ("Never use a long word where a short one will do"). Lim gets this, but only sort of. Harding's inaugural comes in at a college reading level, George H. W. Bush's at about a sixth-grade level. Harding's isn't smarter or subtler, it's just more flowery. They are both empty-headed; both suffer from what Orwell called "slovenliness." The problem doesn't lie in the length of their sentences or the number of their syllables. It lies in the absence of precision, the paucity of ideas, and the evasion of every species of argument.

A beautiful expression of a point we have often tried to emphasize. It's not so much that the superficial rules for writing promulgated Orwell and by Strunk and White are toxic and meretricious (though they do poison young minds, and should be condemned for that); it's that if you think they are deep and important and determinative of quality, it is YOU that will get hung up on trivialities of form rather than important aspects of content.

We've occasionally seen commenters here who suggest that linguists are always on about syntax or usage or phonology, and they fail to see the important stuff about politics or history or humanity or whatever. It is easy to see how a superficial look could lead to that mistake: this is indeed a site devoted to promulgating discussion of language, using the technical terms developed within linguistics. Everything published here ought to show clear signs of being motivated by a technical interest in language. But linguistic form is not some trivial irrelevance; it's what content comes encased in. And if you follow the line taken by the superficial and ignorant prattle that dominates popular discussion of usage, and keep score in the pointless game of grammar Gotcha, then you are going to be misled.

Our regularly expressed hostility to the shallow grammar-bossiness and vapid style-mongering of Strunk and White, and our oft-mentioned low regard for Orwell's essay on English, have a deeper motivation than mere irritation at the simplistic arrogance and hypocrisy of these works. The deeper point is that althought the actual analysis of language in those works is so bad, the attachment to them on the part of American educators and educated people so extreme that there is a real danger of the packaging being confused with the contents. Educated Americans have a tendency to think that (i) intelligence can be directly assessed through the surrogate of compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar, and that (ii) compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar can be checked quickly and easily by glancing in Strunk and White's brainless little pamphlet of 19th-century grammar nonsense. Both propositions are wrong and dangerous, yet tacit acceptance of them is widespread.

I have heard of a boss who openly declared that he wouldn't have anyone working for him who would write a split infinitive. When I assault that as ridiculously misguided, a perversion of grammar sensitivity, it's not because the important thing is whether adverbs go in between the meaningless marker to and the accompanying plain verb in an infinitival clause. I'm not an idiot, and I don't think the exact location of adverbs and other verb phrase modifiers is something to organize your life around. But that's the whole point: it's not me who's doing that, it's this insane boss. What makes the issue a serious one for me is that a man would judge intelligence and employability on something like this. It does indeed display pig-ignorance of English syntax and literary usage to be hung up on split infinitives, but that's the less important point. The more important side of it is that this boss is a maniac who has his priorities all wrong. I'm worried not about where his adverbs might go but about where his marbles have gone. The danger is not about modifier location but about whether he will be an insane boss in other ways as well.

For brief details about the split infinitive, see my short essay at ~gpullum/ grammar/ splitinf.html, or any of our many posts on the topic. But never think that Language Log writers are mired in this sort of detail because they can't see anything else. We are concerned with all the important things that you are concerned about: justice, peace, stability, fairness, tolerance, kindness, comfort, thrift, generosity, love, sex, music, art, death, life, the universe, and everything. We study the minutiae of linguistic form partly because it is fascinating (to us, anyway — your mileage may differ), but also because it would be a shame if people were led away from the truth about more important things by stupid and avoidable errors about what mere language can tell us. Like if you thought psycholinguistic scientists had shown that women talk three times as much as men (there is no such result); or if you thought (as Jill Lepore does not) that the Flesch Reading Test was a measure of intelligent thought.


  1. language hat said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Yes, that passage struck me too — I wanted to stand up and cheer. It's all too rare to see that emphasized. I also liked the bit where she created a "doctoral-level" sentence, full of big words and Latinate syntax, and pointed out that it was "malarkey."

  2. KL said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Absolutely. I was reading that on the T (subway), and I was so happy and excited that people were looking at me funny. It's so rare to see anyone standing up to the narrow-mindedness of Strunk & White and Orwell.

    "Prescriptivist Poppycock" ought to be a tag used by a lot more blogs.

  3. Simon Cauchi said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    I'm glad to know that you people at Language Log Plaza are concerned with "justice, peace, stability, fairness, tolerance, kindness, comfort, thrift, generosity, love, sex, music, art, death, life, the universe, and everything", but surely you can also get food and drink there? Well, I suppose that's implicit in the concluding "and everything". Anyway, long live Geoff Pullum's tirades! They are what keep me reading Language Log. (I couldn't care less about the language of presidential inaugural addresses.)

  4. Jane said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Damn, that was well said. Major kudos to Dr. Pullum.

  5. Sarang said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    "Educated Americans have a tendency to think that intelligence can be directly assessed through the surrogate of compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar"

    In fairness to Orwell, he wrote a lot of literary criticism, none of which is about passives or split infinitives. I don't think prescriptivist screeds are usually meant as guidelines for lazy readers, and it isn't the prescriptivists' fault that they're used that way. As guidelines for writers, surely they're not that bad; compliance with Orwell's rules doesn't ruin your prose, and having them (or any other set of rules, like "never begin a sentence with a P unless you have to") at the back of your mind might make you a more self-conscious, and therefore better, writer.

  6. Rubrick said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    The notion of using the Flesch test as a gauge of the intelligence level of a speech is laughable. Equating "difficult to understand" with "smart" is of course bonkers– besides which, the Flesch test is a crappy gauge of comprehensibility to begin with.

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    For more on the crappiness of the Flesch test for gauging political discourse, see my post "There will be passives."

  8. marie-lucie said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    "Educated Americans have a tendency to think that intelligence can be directly assessed through the surrogate of compliance with the rules of Standard English grammar".

    I don't think educated Americans are alone in that sort of attitude. At the time of the breaking up of the Communist block I read an article about the situation in Poland which quoted a well-known writer (I forget who) as a critic of Lech Walesa: "I don't think he is very intelligent, he doesn't even speak good Polish!" Presumably Walesa, an electrician by trade, was speaking colloquial rather than literary Polish.

  9. JAK said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    I have been reading this blog for a while now and have even commented before on issues that were important for me. But this entry most succinctly puts across the reason that I love this blog for. I do not have anything else to add to to it except a thank you for everyone at LL.

    PS: I could have added flowery expressions of appreciation in my comments but doing it here, especially in response to this entry would have been pure blasphemy. I guess this illustrates the whole point of this blog. :-)

  10. Sandra Wilde said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    I'm reminded of Labov's Logic of Non-Standard English where he compares an empty though "proper" piece of discourse with a more intellectually rigorous one in more colloquial language. Old-fashioned prescriptivist views of course do the most harm to people of color and the poor.

  11. Tadeusz said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    On Walesa: his speech is a curious mixture of regional, non-standard features (both in pronunciation and morphology) with big words which he uses in a puzzling way. Add to this his startling metaphors and similes, such as "left-wing politicians are like the left leg, right-wing politicians are like the right leg, and I am between them" (appropriate cartoons showed his position quite clearly). As a result what you hear very often does not mean too much, or rather can mean whatever Walesa's interpretation is later.

  12. joseph palmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    As with other forms of linguistic ignorance, this situation would be much alleviated if there was some kind of well known body that could be turned to for linguistic guidance. For many matters relating to English usage people most people seem to still believe that ancient grammarians are best. Since Mr Pullum is now the Cambridge University sanctified premier expert on the English language, he would probably have the clout to start forming such a body. Just because the French language academy is a bit misguided, it doesn't mean ours need be so.

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