Disfluency gap

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Is there one? Chris asks the question, citing a collection of LL posts.

Though George W. Bush certainly took his share of (in my opinion) unfair criticism on this issue, I should point out that Howie Carr's long-running Wizard of Uhs feature was focused on Ted Kennedy, and there's been a fairly large-scale attempt to transfer this epithet to Barack Obama, which hasn't really caught on, except in a diluted form as the Teleprompter Meme.


  1. Steve F said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    In Britain one politician in particular was – unfairly? – singled out for his supposed disfluency: John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair. Here is an example: 'The objectives remain the same and indeed that has been made clear by the Prime Minister in a speech yesterday that the objectives are clear and the one about the removal of the Taliban is not something we have as a clear objective to implement but it is possible a consequence that will flow from the Taliban clearly giving protection to Bin Laden and the UN resolution made it absolutely clear that anyone that finds them in that position declares themselves an enemy and that clearly is a matter for these objectives'.

    Interestingly, in his case it was generally seen as rather endearing, and evidence that he had the 'common touch' and still retained his working class roots, and his opaque utterances were favourably compared to the slick soundbites that Blair and others associated with the 'New Labour' project were accused of employing. He was much mocked by his opponents of course, but until quite late on – when a series of indiscretions, including an affair with his secretary and an unlikely confession that he suffered from bulimia turned him into a figure of fun – his 'down to earth' style, to which his perceived 'disfluency' contributed, was still seen as an asset.

    But Prescott was probably a one-off and I wouldn't want to suggest that it represents a difference between US and UK attitudes to politics and politicians. He also famously punched a member of the public who threw an egg at him in the middle of an election campaign, and it didn't seem to do him much harm.

  2. Nightstallion said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Former Austrian vice chancellor Herbert Haupt was also quite famous for his run-on sentences devoid of any content or grammar.

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Too bad Casey Stengel never got into politics. His testimony before Kefauver's Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee in 1958 outdid any politician, I believe.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    Maybe someone could do a state-level comparison, but I suspect at the national level there are too few politicians below the Presidential level with a high enough profile to really count and thus you end up with too few datapoints because there just aren't that many Presidents. Certainly the non-Republican Jimmy Carter got lots of mocking for having a non-prestige regional accent, which might be considered an instance of disfluency. Of course, bias can play out in different ways: if you can't criticize Reagan for disfluency because it's not sufficiently in evidence, you can always point out that he was merely an actor, thus making his lack of disfluency somehow confirming evidence of his lightweightness. One possible good A-B comparison would be coverage of disfluencies or gaffes committed by Dan Quayle and Joe Biden, where my loose impression (which should be not considered reliable absent actual rigorous investigation by some researcher that isn't going to be me) is that each Quayle gaffe was publicized as confirming evidence that he was a lightweight, whereas Biden gaffes are somehow evidence of Gool Ol' Joe's lovable personality, and don't even always merit getting written up.

  5. Stephen said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    "A verb, Senator! We need a verb!"

    –Doonesbury, lampooning Kennedy in 1980

  6. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    Presumably one reason Pelosi isn't criticized as much as Bush or Palin is that she's not really in a comparable position; if she were running for president, then we'd see if there's a gap. Chris's comparison of Biden and Quayle is more to the point. As for presidents, while I agree that much of the criticism of Bush's speaking was unfair, I do think the Democratic presidents over the last thirty years have been notably more articulate than their Republican counterparts. Is there a way to quantify that? Is that just my bias telling me so? I don't know. And I'm not saying there isn't a gap; I'm just not sure where to look for it.

  7. Ben said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    The former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien was said to speak both official languages (English and French) as a second language. The Conservatives once ran an ad mocking the way he spoke (out of the side of his mouth); the ad backfired when the Liberals pointed out that Chretien had Bell's palsy. He was also widely mocked for having explained, in an interview, what a proof was: "A proof is a proof is a proof, and if something has been proven, it is a proof, and it can't be unproofed" (or something like that; Google has failed to reveal the full quotation). But that remark came in the context of his explaining Canada's unusual decision not to follow the US into war: Canada didn't go to war with Iraq, because Chretien didn't think that the US had proved that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It turned out to be one of the most astute things he ever said.

  8. Chris said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Commenter Theordore over at my post made a good point: "Maybe it's not so much "Republicans being more likely to be criticized," but Republicans being less likely to do the criticizing, since it would be perceived as "elitist."

    I doubt there's an easy way to quantify this (I'd prefer "computationalize", hehe). this is a job for good old qualitative research methods.

  9. fev said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    In the broader context of pointing to (presumed) flaws in presidential speech as symptoms of flaws in presidential character, I can't agree. When Will and Krauthammer analyze speech features or pronoun counts as evidence of Obama's overwhelming narcissism, they're doing it from the luxury boxes, but they're doing the same thing Fox News does from the cheap seats with heds like "Obama's doing all the talking at the PEOPLE'S forum."

    It does sound like a job for discourse analysis, though. Somebody call Commissioner Gordon.

  10. Hermeticus said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    Part of the disfluency issue has to do with background self-conceptions on the part of the political sides. Republicans believes the public only needs basic, gut-level "ideas," and they cast liberals as condescending, corrupt, non-serious elites. Education is seen as a smokescreen for political manipulation of decent law-abiding Americans. Liberals believe the public needs educating, and so they cast Republicans as dangerously ignorant. Reagan was cast as a bumbler, Quayle as a potatoe-brained lightweight, George W. Bush as, well, where does one begin. They risk presenting the public as similarly uninformed.

    Republicans seize on gaffes as elite hypocrisy ("If Biden is so smart, how come he said…"), unless the person is a minority (in which case, "unqualified!")– Obama gets both of course. Democrats seize on them as evidence of a deeper ignorance. I think educators have a natural tendency to see themselves as fighting ignorance, and to see liberal gaffes in the spirit of "Well, we know what they meant."

  11. fev said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    It's hard to go wrong quoting A.J. Liebling, so:

    "The almost monolithic press had Kennedy well screened from public gaze, and was about to misrepresent him as a callow gossoon, hiding a low IQ under his father's thumb. Then television, a crude Timur with a grudge based on the press's ribbing of television payola, came to the rescue and exhibited Nixon. … The networks were no kindlier motivated toward the public than Timur toward the Greeks. They just wanted to get even with the newspapers."

  12. dan bloom said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    isn't the word "dysfluency" ??? Sarah Palin also suffers from this and it's a speech disorder, I believe, google it….there's a medical term for it too

  13. dan bloom said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:47 am


    Although I think it's fair to say that during interviews (that is, in
    unscripted speech) former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin has sometimes exhibited dysfluency (a
    general term for speech that isn't smoothly delivered or grammatically
    well formed), I'm not qualified to judge whether she suffers from a
    chronic speech disorder. (Anacoluthon, by the way, is not usually
    considered a chronic disorder; rather, it's an occasional practice that we
    may all fall into–especially in times of stress.) For a credible
    diagnosis of Ms Palin's speech patterns, you really should consult with a speech-language pathologist,
    not a rhetorician.


    A Rhetorician in the USA

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