Public discourse about public discourse

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I CAN'T TALK ENGLISH PROPER SAYS PREZZA

Thus trumpeted a headline in last Wednesday's issue of The Sun (the UK's trashiest tabloid; Scottish edition, page 6). Prezza is John Prescott, a burly politician in the UK Parliament (at one time deputy prime minister), much loved for his newsworthiness. He makes amusing gaffes in his public pronouncements, and he had an affair with his secretary, giving him a mockability index something like Bill Clinton and George Bush combined as far as the UK tabloids are concerned. The story begins: Former Deputy PM John Prescott finally admitted it yesterday — he has trouble speaking English. He simply had not mastered the grammar of the English language, for reasons going back to his non-academic public secondary school. Plenty of quotes follow to illustrate what The Sun calls "his often-garbled ramblings".

Well, let's just get an expert diagnosis before we buy the story, shall we? Language Log has examined the evidence. And — perhaps you can guess if you remember such previous posts of mine as Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects? back in 2006 and Arnold Zwicky's It's all grammar in 2004 — the evidence shows not a single trace of what it is supposed to show.

The sad fact is that when accusations of not being able to speak the language are tossed around, it is common — such is the level of public ignorance about grammar — for neither the accusers nor the accused to know what they are talking about, or to be able to tell whether the accusations are true or not.

I stress again, this is not a defense of bad grammar, or a defense of John Prescott. It is a sociological remark, a metacomment about the degree to which my profession has failed to instill in the typical politician, journalist, or (presumably) newspaper reader any real idea of what the notion "grammatical" might mean.

Here are the comments quoted from John Prescott himself:

It's something I've not mastered — the language or the grammar — and that's caused a problem for me.

It goes back to the education. Secondary modern school education wasn't the greatest, but there were lots of people who learned the grammar — I didn't.

It's often used as a characterisation — mangle the language. If you take my speech on "one member one vote", I've never been able to watch it. Once, when I saw it on the news and I could see the language wasn't right, I felt a little ashamed of it.

The Sun got a bit more out of him on the love affair he had with his secretary, and about the day she blew his cover by talking about it:

It was just one of those things that did happen. I have got no excuses for it. Things happen like that in your personal life, don't they? It is a terrible experience all round for which I have got no excuse and for which I am properly ashamed.

That's life. I was certainly surprised but when it did happen I just admitted it. I didn't want to be in the position of it being dragged out. It happened. I had been found out.

I talked to my wife. She was very strong and supportive. I was fortunate to be a man who has a wife who's obviously more mature than me, quite frankly.

I felt bad about it, should feel bad about it, apologised for it and got on with the job.

Thus far we have 19 sentences, and there is not a single morphological or syntactic error of any kind whatsoever. This is 100% perfect grammatical Standard English. Indeed, it is impeccably structured formal style at some points, as with the coordination of two relative clauses each with fronted preposition phrase: for which I have got no excuse and for which I am properly ashamed. There's no such thing as speaking more grammatically than this.

Notice, The Sun has not lied about him; it has done something much cleverer: it has managed to get him to tell untruths about himself that he believes and that other people will believe, and then simply printed a story stating that he uttered those untruths. It would be tantamount to lying (i.e., promulgating something one knows to be untrue) if the writer (one David Wooding, the governmental editor) knew that the quoted statements about failure to command English grammar were false; but I do not know whether Wooding knows that or not.

An inset panel was added under the title "His words of wisdom", apparently to provide a few examples of Prescott's alleged trouble with speaking English — "his often-garbled ramblings". And the panel contained these statements:

The Green Belt is a Labour initiative and we intend to build on it.

An antecedent choice ambiguity (build on the initiative, or build on the Green Belt?), which gives an unintendedly amusing incorrect reading (the point about the Green Belt is that you're not allowed to build on it), but grammar does not preclude off-the-wall wrong choices of antecedent. No grammar mistake there.

Any definition of homelessness that suggests that people haven't got a home is not good.

Definitely an unintendedly goofy statement, and certainly a mistake suitable for ridicule (it would be seized on as a Bushism if Bush said it), it's completely grammatical.

My position is that I want to make our position clear. The example in Germany is just one example, for example.

Again, a ludicrous statement with virtually no detectable content at all; but we are not concerned here with matters of being sensible or statesmanlike. I can no more defend the above public statement on foreign affairs than I can defend cheating on a loyal partner by sneaking off during lunch hours to screw a secretary. But they said grammar. They said garbled. They said Prescott "has trouble speaking English". And they seem to have managed to get the poor man believing that. The above two sentences are certainly both almost tautologous nonsense: they mean virtually nothing. But they are almost tautologous nonsense in impeccably grammatical Standard English. (Sure, there is probably evidence elsewhere of his having sometimes made grammatical errors in speech too. But all of us have made grammatical errors in speech. Surely the claim is not that absolutely nobody can talk English.)

To repeat, if John Prescott is a dull-witted man who makes vapid public pronouncements that are not worth listening to, fair enough. No complaints from me about saying that. But the odd thing about public discourse about public discourse is that people can be claimed falsely to be committing grammatical errors, and no one seems to know enough about grammar to be able to see that these claims are false from top to bottom. There is no evidence in this article that says John Prescott has anything other than a perfect grasp of morphology and syntax.

Update: I see there is a humorous book entitled Punchlines: A Crash Course in English With John Prescott by Simon Hoggart. I haven't seen it, but it may be that journalists have been using Prescott as a butt of ridicule for linguistic shortcomings for over five years.



13 Comments

  1. Harry said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    I don't think Prescott's problem is grammar, strictly speaking, but he does seem to have a degree of disfluency that goes beyond vapid. 'Garbled' is often fair. I know I've seen a couple of examples of columnists trying to extract humour from comparisons of their own verbatim reports of what he said in parliament and what Hansard reported it as; there's an example of the kind of thing here:

    What John said: "And even in the gas and electricity he talks about Government and Treasury particularly have always imposed a kind of energy tax on them, forced them to charge more through the external financial limits the negative role he talks about which is a tax on those industries."

    What Hansard thought he meant: "The Treasury has always imposed a kind of energy tax on the gas and electricity industries, forcing them to charge more through a negative financial limit."

    As I say, I don't think his problems come from a lack of understanding of grammar, exactly, although he has obviously latched on to that explanation as part of his hyper-working-class persona. It's more like an inability to find the right word quickly enough when talking off the cuff: as for example when he stood in for Blair at PMQs, which is about the worst possible venue for someone who tends to trip over their own speech under pressure. He didn't help himself by tending to speed up when he was flustered.

    So while I don't think 'Prescott is bad at grammar' is the right explanation, I do think he frequently garbled his speech in a notable way that went beyond the normal slips of the tongue.

  2. Mo vander Lism said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    I agree with Harry.

    This is The Sun, for God's sake, what do you expect if you read The Sun? Prescott has a problem getting the right words out in the right order. He says he has a problem with grammar, but then he would say that, wouldn't he? (Duh, he he has difficulty communicating).

    As a licensed professional linguist you have a duty to come up with a better diagnosis than garbled, or dull-witted. As any fule kno, you don't get to be deputy PM by being dull-witted.

  3. Ewan said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    What about the apparently needless do-support? Is that a feature of his dialect or is there some kind of emphasis I'm not hearing? Sentences like this sound odd to me:

    It was just one of those things that did happen.

    I was certainly surprised but when it did happen I just admitted it.

  4. Shimon Edelman said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    But the odd thing about public discourse about public discourse is that people can be claimed falsely to be committing grammatical errors, and no one seems to know enough about grammar to be able to see that these claims are false from top to bottom. There is no evidence in this article that says John Prescott has anything other than a perfect grasp of morphology and syntax.

    Ah, but maybe disconnecting morphology and syntax from semantics and pragmatics is not such a good idea after all, and the public discourse merely reflects this realization. John Goldsmith offers what I think is an eye-opening discussion of related issues in his paper Towards a new empiricism (2007; see esp. sec.3, where "grammar" is defined).

    -Shimon

  5. Kris Rhodes said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    From above:


    What John said: "And even in the gas and electricity he talks about Government and Treasury particularly have always imposed a kind of energy tax on them, forced them to charge more through the external financial limits the negative role he talks about which is a tax on those industries."

    Seems like it's clear enough when punctuated:


    What John said: "And even in the gas and electricity he talks about, Government, and Treasury particularly, have always imposed a kind of energy tax on them. Forced them to charge more through the external financial limits–the negative role he talks about–which is a tax on those industries."

    The first clause is ungrammatical, but easy enough to understand. He means "with regard to" instead of "in". This is a common enough extemp-ism. The rest is perfectly grammatical–and makes sense–as far as I can tell.

    Not saying it's good oration, just saying it's not as nonsensical as it looks without the punctuation.

    -Kris

  6. Paul O'Brien said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

    Prescott's problem is a tendency to produce slightly garbled run-on sentences when he's making public statements off the cuff. As others have pointed out, it's usually tolerably clear what point he was intending to make; but it's also fair to say that he's notably one of the less skilful public speakers at that level of British politics.

    I wouldn't place any real weight on the Sun quotes – I'm sure they tidy up spoken English as a matter of course, simply to make it more readable. I've always taken it as read that any quotes in the tabloid press are likely to be discreetly paraphrased (unless the article makes a big point about the choice of words).

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

    @Ewan

    'do' in affirmative sentences. Prescott's statements seem fine to me. The additional 'do' draws attention to the verb, which is what you would expect if he was surprised.

  8. Jonathan said,

    June 2, 2008 @ 12:20 am

    Most ordinary people don't use the word "grammar" in the same sense that linguists do. The Sun was not using "grammar" the term of art, but "grammar" the ordinary word in its braod sense of "correct use of language." Obviously it's useful for linguists to be able to distinguish an ungrammatical utterance from a nonsensical one. But if the Sun uses "ungrammatical" in a sense broad enough to include "nonsensical", is that wrong? Or is that just adopting a colloquial usage?

  9. Robert said,

    June 2, 2008 @ 3:40 am

    Part of the problem is Prescott's claim that 'I did not go to public school, so there is a limit to what I am able to say', which is clearly false. Plenty of his colleagues went to state schools, yet speak with just as much polish as the most expensively educated conservatives. He didn't get that idea from the newspapers. People are mocking him as much because he's got a chip on his shoulder as because of any actual speech problems.

    As for his actual fluency, another quote (via wikiquotes) is:

    "Look I've got my old pledge card a bit battered and crumpled, we said we'd provide more turches churches teachers and we have.I can remember when people used to say the Japanese are better than us,the Germans are better than us,the French are better than us well it's great to be able to say we're better than them.I think Mr Kennedy well we all congratulate on his baby and the Tories are you remembering what I'm remembering boom and bust negative equity, remember Mr Howard,I mean are you thinking what I'm thinking I'm remembering,it's all a bit wonky isn't it?"

    Adding punctuation, this becomes

    "Look, I've got my old pledge card a bit battered and crumpled. We said we'd provide more turches churches teachers, and we have.I can remember when people used to say the Japanese are better than us,the Germans are better than us,the French are better than us. Well, it's great to be able to say we're better than them. I think Mr Kennedy – well, we all congratulate on his baby – and the Tories – are you remembering what I'm remembering? boom and bust? negative equity? Remember Mr Howard? I mean, are you thinking what I'm thinking. I'm remembering – it's all a bit wonky isn't it?"

    The only grammatical error is 'well, we congratulate on his baby', which should be 'well, we congratulate him on his baby', or possibly 'who we all congratulate on his baby', but Prescott clearly lost track of the thread in the last sentence of that quote. This isn't unusual for average speakers, but politicians are professionals. They are expected, perhaps unfairly, to do better than that.

  10. Alexis said,

    June 2, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    This isn't linguistically relevant (except maybe as a demonstration that words are not his medium of choice), but a full disclosure of why John Prescott has a high mockability index must include the fact that he punched a guy who threw an egg at him in a crowd.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/vote2001/hi/english/newsid_1335000/1335107.stm

  11. Bev Rowe said,

    June 3, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    I wish The Sun was the trashiest. Have you looked at the Daily Sport? Last week it had a headline "Indiana Jones was a gay Kraut": about as bad as it gets.

  12. Peter said,

    June 3, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    For the record, quickness of temper and a willingness to throw a punch at an egg-hurler is not necessarily a sign of linguistic incapacity. Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, was a fine and moving orator, and yet also once punched a heckler who had annotated a speech act with an egg, and, indeed, threw the punch after jumping from a train.

  13. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    I have to agree with Bev. The Sport and the Star are way trashier than the Sun, and at times even the Express gives the Sun a run for its money.

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