Political parts of speech

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For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor. As a recent example, consider Margaret Carlson's analysis of Sarah Palin's resignation speech (from Countdown on July 9, 2009):

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Sarah Palin is very good at stringing words together
that don't have a subject, a verb and an object, they're just
present participles and prepositions and "I love the people of Alaska"
and "I'm quitting so I can serve them better".
It makes no sense!

I believe that Carlson means to claim that Palin speaks in fragments rather than complete sentences. But having "a subject, a verb and an object" is a poor diagnostic for this: for example, the very sentence that Carlson uses to make the claim appears to fail the test. And I don't believe it's true, by any test, that Palin's resignation statement contained an unusual number of sentence fragments, or was particularly rich in present participles and prepositions.

I invite you to count (fragments, present participles, and prepositions) in the transcript of Gov. Palin's statement, and compare their frequency with what you find in Ms. Carlson's commentaries (e.g. here as well as the episode linked above). I don't have the time to do it myself, today. But as a suggestion of what you're likely to find, here are their respective openings in the passages under discussion:

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OK, good.
Appreciate you all being here, and I just want to say hi to Alaska.
I appreciate speaking directly to the people that I serve as governor
and I thank you all for coming here today, on the shores of Lake Lucille —
this is a source of inspiration for my family and for me —
and I'm thankful that Todd flew in last night
from commercial fishing grounds in Bristol Bay, to
stand by my side
as always.

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Well in- in the statement, in her back yard,
there- the- the- I'm surprised you found,
you know, the heart of it, which uh was
the- the- the legal fees. Because there was the lame duck,
she doesn't want to milk it, she doesn't want to go on junkets,
everybody does it, remember there're countless others,
who've quit, and when there're only two governors who've ever quit,
under pressure,
Eliot Spitzer and Jim McGreevy of- of New Jersey,
uh but you found this one,
and this one then turns out not to be right.

In my opinion, there are legitimate questions about the logical and rhetorical coherence of Gov. Palin's statement. But Ms. Carlson's apparent attempt to characterize this as syntactic incoherence was analytically lazy and linguistically silly.

[For a different take on the psycho-political correlates of sentence structure, see "Decisiveness is SVO: a Hitlerian theory of communication?", 9/30/2004; "Decisiveness and clause structure", 10/6/2004.]

[Update 7/12/2009: fev at Headsup: The Blog considers a range of recent cases where "the commenting class uses linguistic features of political speech to shed light on True Motives and Meaning", and observes ("Unseen Hand Club", 7/11/2009) that

These are very well organized assertions about personal and political character, and they fit neatly into a consistent pattern. […]

Incoherent metaphor? Hardly. I think we're seeing a carefully arranged meta-frame emerge — the sort of metaphor by which a certain part of the population lives.

Read the whole thing. ]


  1. Matthew H said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    Some more pop linguistic analysis of this speech from Cenk Uygur, the anchor of a YouTube punditry show. His comments invoke the "new active", and come to the same conclusion about Palin not speaking in complete sentences:


    The linguistic comments start around 8:00:

    "I have a theory…They taught her how to speak when she was on TV. Remember she was a sports anchor on TV? And I know the consultants on TV tell you to speak in an 'active' way: "…directing Alaska in this way"? Now why — it doesn't make sense. It's because you want to be 'active' with the word "directing".

    And you don't want complete phrases. If you listen to a local news station, they won't speak in complete sentences, because they want to be quick, and they want to get to it right away; they want to be active. So she's internalised that and she never speaks in complete sentences. They're always fragments, to make it sound as though they're active, but in fact they sound absurd."

    If I squint I can see some features of sports journalism in her speech. Specifically, the clip just before Cenk's analysis contains a bit of preposing, "Special interests daily we're tackling". You'll often hear sportscasters do this so that they can call the players' names and repair that into full clauses. But I'm not sure this is exactly what Cenk was talking about.

    I'd also note that when Cenk introduces the idea of 'active', it sounds very much like he wants to say active voice, and corrects himself to the non-technical 'active way'.

  2. Emily said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    Okay so I'd like to draw a comparison. In college I wrote a play with the following exchange, which takes place in a room full of shattered glass:

    LEAH: She said I should come over.

    CONNOR: Why would she say that?

    LEAH: She thinks you don't know how to sweep.

    CONNOR: Why would she think that?

    LEAH: Because your room looks like a Gunter Gras novel!

    Now at that time my familiarity with the work of Gunter Gras was basically, I read The Tin Drum once. In which there is a lot of broken glass. But scattered detritus is not, to my knowledge, a pervasive stylistic feature of his other works. So I hardly knew anything about Gras, and probably neither did most people in the audience.

    But the line got a laugh every night, and not, I think, from people nervously trying to seem in on the joke.

    I think it's because erudite references are on some level appreciated and enjoyed even if they're totally wrong. They do some kind of work and have some kind of value to the audience for which they're intended: not, in my case, German literature majors, and not, in the case of this admittedly muddy Palin examples, linguists. (Or even people with a modest grip on grammatical terminology.)

    (BTW that's an okay thing to call it, right? "grammatical terminology?")

    So I get that these criticisms of Palin are, you know, just wrong and I agree with you. But I think you also have to tune your ear to the way in which even a cursory nod in the direction of technical terminology is appreciated and has currency to a wide audience. You need to hear these examples in that way if you're to properly understand what's being transmitted between audience and speaker.

    Does that make sense?

    [(myl) Yes, I think that's what I meant by "incoherent metaphor". (Although I guess your reference to Günter Grass was an incoherent simile.)]

  3. Speculator 5000 said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    Not to mention that Carlson's tone of voice says "I have an axe to grind and I'm going to find anything I can to criticize." I'm not defending Palin here, and I couldn't care less about the political issues on either side. I just hate hearing people speak with such a desperate "finding fault" tone of voice about someone else. Not to mention the crime against grammar that was that audio clip at the end from Carlson. That was actually one long run-on sentence. Cringe-inducing to listen to.

  4. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Emily, yes, it does makes sense that Carlson, trying to express herself extemporaneously "on air", would grasp at terms she associates with her point, never mind they don't relate to it. They'd still resonate with those who, likewise, confound style with substance.

    From listening to the clip, my sense is Carlson is referring not to Palin's speech but to the interview Palin subsequently gave to Andrea Mitchell:


    Tellingly, however, Mark's description of her analysis is no less trenchant when applied to Mitchell's interview, wherein Palin's answers could legitimately be fragmented yet mostly aren't.

    Had Carlson complained Palin can string together subject, verb, and object, but for all that, says little, it'd make sense but would be a critique of what she says, not how she says it.

    [(myl) You might be right, though I thought that the reference to Palin's "back yard" at the start of Carlson's remarks meant that she was referring to the original resignation statement itself.

    Also, although I don't really know what goes on behind the scenes of high-level punditry, I'd guess that Carlson has a clear idea in advance of what she's going to be asked to comment on, and so her responses are at best semi-extemporaneous. And in this case, she'd already written at least one column on the subject.

    Otherwise, I agree with your analysis.]

  5. Devon Strolovitch said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    There has been at least one bit of good (or at least worth a laugh) invocation of grammar as a tool of rational analysis in recent memory, namely Joe Biden on Rudy Giuliani: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11."

  6. Psi Wavefunction said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Poor linguistics… the public already has enough of an ego when it comes to biology/evolutionary topic — when correcting some of their horribly grotesque butcherings of genetics, they actually fight back and argue with you, regardless if you pay your bills doing that stuff! — but the abuse of anything language-related is carried out with relentless vigour and determined willful ignorance of real linguistics. Perhaps even worse… whereas we biologists are just evil madmen out to destroy the world with mutant armies, you linguists are ultra-pedants with a grammatical OCD fetish out to teach us how to talk good[sic]!

    I think the media is partly responsible, and as is the schooling. Most people's only introduction to language sciences was highschool English grammar classes where they had to sit and circle verbs, adjectives and gerunds without any background explanation of how language actually works (and that such a question actually exists). Thus they willfully abuse the vaguely-explained terminology they once picked up in grammar hell.

    At least in the case of science, people believe in authorities (who err too, I don't advocate academia-worship in any way!), but when it comes to language, everyone and their mother, family cat and pet rabbit seem to have cast iron opinion…

    (People wonder why the hell I'm voluntarily taking a 3rd year grammar and syntax course for my arts elective… =D )

  7. Christopher said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    Mark, I think you may be slightly misinterpreting what Carlson said. I think that she meant that Palin just uses present participles and prepositions and the phrases "I love the people of Alaska" and "I'm quitting so I can serve them better".

    I think those phrases are meant to be basic units of her speech, rather then examples of poor sentences.

    Which doesn't alter your main point.

    I guess this is one of those times where you don't want to sound stupid, so you use a fancier word that doesn't quite mean what you think it does. Presumably, just saying "Palin is a really bad speaker" wouldn't sound erudite enough, so Carlson went into that bit about past participles and such.

    Honestly, as somebody who thinks Palin IS a terrible speaker, it kind of irritates me. Like, there aren't enough real problems with the way she talks?

    I think the media is partly responsible, and as is the schooling.

    I think there's some kind of magical thinking going on, too. People in America (I can't speak for the rest of the world) seem to see science not as a set of rules for finding things out, but as an arcane process that the powerful use to impose their will on the universe. So if you borrow the words (or incantations, if you will) of science, you can gain some of that power scientists seem to have over the universe. I think a lot of America is part of a big Cargo Cult, basically.

  8. fev said,

    July 12, 2009 @ 1:13 am

    Well — again, a nice job in pointing out the failings of the commentariat, but "incoherent metaphor" seems off the mark. They might be wildly wrong, but they're pretty coherent when you look at 'em right.

  9. Lane said,

    July 12, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    I think "incoherent metaphor" is just about right. The commentariat wants to use linguistic competence as a proxy for rhetorical and logical and moral and political goodness, but it seems (as Mark never bores of pointing out) that people just either don't have the tools to make this kind of statement, or they don't care to use them. Incoherent is actually pretty kind. I'd just say incompetent.

    Compare Geoff Pullum's long history of complaining about "linguification" on this blog: "To mention Robert Mugabe in the same sentence with the President of the United States is an outrage," or whatever. (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/index.php?s=linguification) Pullum hates this; it bothers me not at all, because if you asked the writers in question, they'd readily say they were exaggerating for effect.

    But the people who write or say this kind of thing really think they're right, that Sarah Palin actually speaks without subjects and objects. And they're not right.

    [(myl) "Linguistic competence as a proxy for rhetorical and logical and moral and political goodness" is a nice summary of what fev called the "meta-frame" for Sarah Palin (and George W. Bush before her). In the case of Barack Obama, there are a few tentative "language reveals character" memes floating around — last month's "Great I Am" flurry was one example, and perhaps the whole teleprompter-puppet business is another.

    Of course, most such pigeon-holing is not linguistic. And I doubt that the non-linguistic examples are any more accurate than the linguistic ones — Gerald Ford was probably not any clumsier than other members of Congress, and Al Gore didn't really claim more of a role in promoting the internet than he was entitled to, and John Kerry was not really more prone to changing his mind than other politicians. But the commentators who established and maintained those stereotypes at least knew what they were claiming, more or less, and made some attempts to exemplify them.

    So you may be right that linguistic pack journalism is more incompetent than other sorts of pack journalism are. ]

  10. fev said,

    July 12, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Are you kidding? Linguistic pack journalism doesn't even have a word for "incompetence."

    I do think it's worth separating the competence of the commentator's analysis (which we can probably all agree is nil) from the coherence of the metaphor. George Will makes up the stuff he makes up about pronoun counts because it fits with the running theme of presidential arrogance/narcissism, which is where Krauthammer is going with "our president likes his plumage." It doesn't matter that one assertion is testable and the other isn't; what matters is the way they work together to organize the outside world for that particular audience.

    The teleprompter thing is related but slightly different, I think — it's part of the Obama-as-empty-suit frame, in which the president is a nonentity controlled by Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and the unquiet ghost of Saul Alinsky. Language competence (or what commentator N says about political actor A's language competence) is an important part of that frame too. but not the only part.

  11. tablogloid said,

    July 12, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    If I have to listen to Sarah Palin, her utterings remind me of those made by certain people talking on cell phones in public screaming personal concerns a pitch above the crowd.

  12. acilius said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    "For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor." Well, this seems like a fine example of hyperbole. If there were a site equivalent to Language Log maintained by experts on "most intellectuals today" and the perception of "most intellectuals today" among non-experts, I don't doubt that a poster there would take you to task for the sweeping generalization, for labeling campaign reporter-turned-TV personality Margaret Carlson as an intellectual, etc etc. LL fans could then reply that this was missing the point, that you were perhaps making a joke of your own peevishness, etc.

  13. Chris said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Are you kidding? Linguistic pack journalism doesn't even have a word for "incompetence."

    Yes – in the same sense that fish don't have a word for water.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Bravo to acilius for figuring out how to raise the delicate question of whether Margaret Carlson is really helpfully categorized as an "intellectual" in a non-snarky fashion. (Of course there's nothing wrong with journalists not being intellectuals, and probably a number of bad trends in journalism caused by some of them thinking they are. But see the classic Art Buchwald column on Spiro Agnew incurring the wrath of the Pseudo-Intellectual Antidefamation League.)

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