Anaphoric that considered harmful

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Scott Walker recently got into a little trouble for a preposterous proposal that he put forward on Meet the Press. The headlines tell the story: "Scott Walker: Canada-U.S. border wall worth considering", CNBC News; "Scott Walker: U.S.-Canada wall a 'legitimate' idea", CNN;  "Scott Walker says wall along Canadian border is worth reviewing", AP.

Except that Walker never made any such proposal.

What can we learn from this, besides reinforcing the obvious generalization that we need a better press corps? Here's a simple version: Politicians should avoid using words like "that" to refer to general concepts in the previous discourse.

This lesson was exemplified in an earlier election cycle by the whole "You didn't build that" foofaraw. And Walker's misstep lets us add another clause to the warning:

Especially avoid anaphoric that when you're responding to an interviewer who adds a problematic potential referent after you start talking.

Here's what happened. We're about 9:24 into a half-hour interview, Chuck Todd questioning Scott Walker, and Todd turns to border security. He asks

All right, let's go to your foreign policy speech. I found it interesting that the first thing you brought up in your foreign policy speech was securing the border and you said that that was basically your number one priority, uh and that you're concerned about terrorists coming over the border. The most famous uh incident that we had of terrorists coming over a border was on our northern border. Why aren't we talking about securing the northern border?

Walker dodges the question, and responds instead about the border between Mexico and Texas:

Well I think we need to secure uh- borders in general, we spend all this money on T S A, um and I think right now one of the most rampant spots is on our southern-based border. When I was there earlier this year with governor Abbott in his Texas public safety they actually showed us the list of people- these are just people they have actually caught, not the many others that probably are going across the border, the people they have caught from places far beyond Mexico, far beyond Latin America, and I think it does raise some very legitimate concerns – we're spending {cough} excuse me, millions of dollars on T S A at our airports and we're spending all sorts of money on port security, it only makes sense to me that if part of what we're trying to do is protect our self, set aside immigration for a minute, but protect our selves from risk out there I think we should make sure we have a secure border.

Todd persists:

But am I- why are we always talking about the southern border, [Walker: I-] and building a fence there, we don't talk about our northern border [Walker: I- I've been talking about] where if this is about- if this is about securing the border from islam- from potentially terrorists coming over. [Walker: Well we-] Do you want to build a wall north of the border too?

Walker starts trying to answer the question three times while Todd continues talking over him, and Todd mentions "a wall north of the border" only at the end of the question. When Walker finally gets his turn, he says [emphasis added]:

Some people have asked us about that in New Hampshire, they raised some very con- uh some very legitimate concerns including some law enforcement folks that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago, so that is a legitimate issue for this [sic] to look at.

Here's the audio for the whole sequence:

When Walker says "Some people have asked us about that in New Hampshire", and "some law enforcement folks … brought that up to me", and "that is a legitimate issue for us to look at", he obviously intends the deictic pronoun that to refer to the general concept of northern border security, not to the specific  idea of building a wall, which is somewhat more preposterous in the case of the U.S.-Canada border than in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border.  (And crucially, the Great Wall of Canada is preposterous in politics as well as in reality, because there's no political panic about hordes of invading Canadians…)

But because of the ambiguity of anaphoric that, what should have been an anodyne and essentially contentless response ("yes, northern border security is a legitimate issue") turned into the Scott Walker News Item of the week, starting with everyone having a good laugh over the Great Wall of Canada, and then reporting the explanations from Walker's campaign, generally treated as "walking back" a misstatement rather than correcting a misunderstanding.

Thus Mark Murray, "Walker: 'I've Never Talked About a Wall' at Canadian Border", NBC News 9/1/2015:

Is Scott Walker walking back his suggestion on Sunday that building a wall or fence on the U.S.-Canadian border is a "legitimate issue"?  

It sure looks that way.

As Ronald Reagan (?) said, "When you're explaining, you're losing."

The full Meet The Press interview is here (warning: autoplay ad) — the Great Wall of Canada segment starts around 9:24.

Note that this post risks endorsing a prescriptivist concern about the vagueness of what Arnold Zwicky has called "summatives". In a series of post a few years ago, we were generally skeptical of these concerns:

"Why are some summatives labeled 'vague'?", 5/21/2008
"More theory trumping practice", 5/22/2008
"Clarity, choice, and evidence", 5/23/2008
"Poor pitiful which", 5/23/2008
"A test kitchen for stylistic recipes", 6/1/2008

But today we're talking about political speech, where opponents (and journalists) will try hard to misconstrue statements as meaning something attackable. And anyhow, we're basically in favor of Prescriptivist Science — or we would be, if it existed.


  1. D-AW said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    The most famous uh incident that we had of terrorists coming over a border was on our northern border.
    OT, but I wonder what incident he is referring to?

    [(myl) Probably the 9/11 hijackers, don't you think?]

  2. David L said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    I don't agree at all. In the clip you provide, Todd ends up asking about a wall, and Walker says that "some people have asked about that…" It may well be that Walker didn't intend to come across as saying that a northern wall was something we should talk about, but it sure sounds that way.

    I draw a different lesson. If you are a presidential candidate, you know that other politicians as well as journalists will try to goad you into saying something foolish or provocative. And you should be on your guard. Walker was so eager to bring the discussion back to what he wanted to say that he paid insufficient attention to what Todd had just asked. That's his mistake.

    [(myl) It's certainly true that journalists try hard to provoke interviewees into giving them the quotes that they want. This practice has been a theme on this blog for a long time — see e.g. "Down with journalists" or "Ritual questions, ritual answers". And it's also likely that Walker was reluctant to state clearly that he was opposed to the idea of a northern wall, since Todd was presumably ready to follow up with questions about why the southern-wall idea is different. But in this case, it's also clear that Walker allowed himself to be trapped into letting Todd make headlines, by not taking enough care to restrict the reference of his deictic pronouns, when Todd snuck in the "wall north of the border" phrase after Walker started his answer.]

  3. D-AW said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    @myl I didn't realize that was still a widely held belief down there.

  4. David L said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 8:10 am

    @D-AW: On the contrary, I assume the reference is to this incident.

    [(myl) You might well be right — but the point in any case was surely to let Todd set Walker up for either opposing or supporting a northern wall, either one of which could be politically problematic.]

  5. Will Hovingh said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 8:19 am

    The "most famous incident" he refers to is probably the arrest of Ahmed Rassam at the Port Angeles, WA port of entry. See LAX bombing plot.

  6. Joe Boyd said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    @D-AW, @myl: This is one of those "zombie" misconceptions that won't die. He is surely and inaccurately refering to 9/11, as have some other officials who should know better:

  7. D.O. said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 9:11 am

    Though journalists, opponents and such are surely often guilty of manufacturing and exploiting gotcha moments, it is a warped version of what in more desired-for situation would be simply calling out BS directly. Whatever troubles there are on US-Mexico border, it is not a danger of terrorists snicking into US. But of course, connecting your favorite cause to terrorism is the best way to advance it, so we have this BS talking point from Gov. Walker. Instead for calling it for what it is, journalists attempt a roundabout way of pretending to take the premise seriously and then forcing the conversation into a lunatic territory. In more dignified terms, Mr. Todd attempted reductio ad absurdum and Mr. Walker walked directly into absurdum because (for the most part) his contention is hinging on absurd to begin with.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 9:44 am

    MYL: Thanks for the link to the Prescriptive Science post. I've long thought people should do that (oops!) and am glad to see that a few people have.

  9. Faith said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 11:38 am

    A lot of Canadians have been really looking forward to the border wall.

  10. D.O. said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

    For natural sciences, the "prescriptive science" counterpart is called engineering.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 3:47 pm quotes an Obama administration official as concerned about the porousness of our northern border to terrorists, although perhaps he's quoted inaccurately or out of context. It does provide some helpful context about the massively greater total number of illegal border-crossers (overwhelmingly non-terrorists of course) apprehended on our southern border. Obviously no one has precise numbers about the total number of illegal border-crossers who are *not* apprehended for either border.

    What I think of as the most high-profile incident resulting from our failure to secure our northern border happened long before 9/11:

  12. GeorgeW said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    This was also a convenient way for Walker to frame the Mexican immigration matter as a foreign policy issue with which he has little, if any, experience.

  13. maidhc said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    He may be talking about Port Angeles, but when you enter Port Angeles from Canada you have to go by boat. So it's not really relevant to the question of whether you need a border wall. It would be like building a wall between the US and Cuba.

  14. Rubrick said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    Walker should simply have clarified that yes, he's for building a wall "north of the border" — north of the border with Mexico, obviously.

  15. Bill W. said,

    September 3, 2015 @ 10:34 am

    It wasn't a summative "that", but "you didn't build that" got the President in trouble as a result of willful misinterpretation, too.

  16. Ulf the Unwashed said,

    September 4, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    "he obviously intends the deictic pronoun that to refer to the general concept of northern border security"

    I don't think that's obvious at all, even after listening to the audio. He was asked specifically "Do you want to build a wall north of the border too?" It seems odd under these circumstances to interpret the "that" as referring to something besides building that (ahem) particular wall.

    [(myl) But crucially, as discussed in the main post, Todd interrupted to ask that question AFTER Walker had already begun answering a more general question about security on "our northern border"…]

  17. parse said,

    September 5, 2015 @ 11:52 am

    Do you say that Todd interrupted because Walker, as the subject in the interview, is due special deference? Because it sounds to me as if it's Walker who's interrupting Todd. I suppose when two people are talking over each other, you can say each is interrupting the other, but in this case where one person begins talking, I think it's more typical to describe the other person's comments as interruptions until the initial speaker has clearly finished speaking.

    I'm not sure whether that is relevant to the question of whether the deictic pronoun refers to the general subject of northern border security or the specific subject of a wall on the Canadian border, but you have identified the issue of Walker being interrupted as crucial.

    [(myl) What's crucial is that Walker formulated (and began to speak) his answer before Todd referenced the northern-border wall, and at a point where northern-border security in general was the most plausible referent for summative "that'. Who technically had the floor when is not relevant to the point at issue.]

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