Badly scripted

« previous post | next post »

The main news from last night's Republican debate seems to be the  way that Marco Rubio walked straight into a devastating attack from Chris Christie, whose campaign has recently been focused on attacking Rubio for being "scripted" — see e.g. Charlie Spiering, "Chris Christie Releases Playlist of Marco Rubio’s ‘Scripted’ Responses", Breitbart 2/5/2016. Apparently Mr. Rubio's scriptwriters weren't able to reprogram him in time:

The result has been featured in the text media, left (Allegra Kirkland, "Christie Fillets ‘Scripted’ Rubio For Repeating The Same Line 3 Times", TPM 2/6/2016), right (Ruth Sherlock, "Chris Christie savages Marco Rubio as too young and too scripted to be president", The Telegraph 2/7/2016) and center (Amber Philips, "How Chris Christie owned Marco Rubio in Saturday’s GOP debate", WaPo 2/7/2016).

And Twitter ampified the meme — and indeed had been repeating it for a week or more before the debate,, though the hashtag #RubioGlitch seems to be new. (See also Sara Jerde, "Twitter Skewers 'Robot' Rubio For Repeating The Same Line 4 Times", TPM 2/6/2016, for another echo of the reaction; or David Frum's essay-in-tweet-form.).

Of course this is something that all politicians do, including Chris Christie. And most other public speakers have their well-rehearsed speechlets as well — though few would be as insensitive to context as senator Rubio seems to have been in this exchange. So I appreciated the pitiless oratorial vivisection, but what most struck me about it was a politically-irrelevant linguistic point: Rubio's use of with to introduce the complement of dispel.

But I would add this: Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing.

My first reaction was that this was a malapropism, "dispel with" substituted for "dispense with".

But this tends to counter the "scripted" meme, since presumably the Rubio campaign can afford to hire writers with a good grasp of English subcategorization conventions. So I wondered whether it might just be a usage that I've missed, rather than a case of bad scriptwriting or imperfect script-remembering.

However, "[dispel]with" in the relevant sense doesn't occur in the 520 million words of the BYU Corpus of Contemporary American English,  although forms of dispel occur 1,585 times. There are five examples of passive-voice dispelled where a following with-clause has an instrumental interpretation, e.g. "If they had had any doubt that the concept would work, it was dispelled with the very first test photo."

And looking through the first few pages of a Google Books search for "dispel with", I see mostly instrumental and comitative uses like

It is less idiomatic to use dispel with a singular countable entity that cannot be regarded as divisible.
Almost acting as if they as an organization want to dispel with a vengeance any thought of this generation's IBM being out of touch with the needs of customers, todays IBM is a lean, mean e-business machine.
Our faith confirm, our fears dispel, With the old voice we loved so well.
They set them on high places to dispel with their flickering beams the darkness that brooded over the city.
Sometimes the recollection of their former rank comes over them like a qualm, which they dispel with brandy, and then humorously rally one another on their mutual degeneracy.

But there are a few examples of Rubio's usage:

[link] To see through this is the acceptance that we are living through our judgements and that we can dispel with them if we choose.
[link] As he might have two days prior, Rukh did not ask Christopher to dispel with the honorific.
[link] …doesn't openly become a third legislative branch, with parties, conventions and campaigns, so that we can dispel with the annoying fiction in which we all seem to wallow that it is an uncorrupted, apolitical dispenser of justice and wisdom.

Given the sparseness of this construction, I'm inclined to continue to regard it as a sporadic malaprop. But it's natural enough that some day Norma Loquendi may change her mind.



  1. S Frankel said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    I, also, vote for "malaprop." He committed several others, most amusingly when he said something to the effect that our air force is smaller than it was a hundred years ago (for "navy," obviously).

  2. Levantine said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    The linked clip doesn't indicate that Rubio had *already* made pretty much the same mini-speech a few minutes before Christie called him out (see It was a thoroughly confusing experience watching it live — I actually thought the video stream had jumped back. And in all the confusion, I missed the weird use of "dispel with".

  3. Mark Mandel said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    I noticed the "dispel with", but it wasn't until reading this post that I realized what it probably is: a malapropism for "dispense (with)". "Dispense with" is close enough in meaning and certainly close enough phonologically. I'm certain that that's what was happening.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    (Sigh.) And that's what comes of reading on a screen the size of my hand: repeating something that I've just read as if it were my own discovery.

    [(myl) It may make you feel better to learn that you're the fourth person to announce their discovery of this idea in the comments — I deleted the others, but you get a pass.]

  5. David Fried said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

    S. Frankel–Nerdlike, I wondered if the US may have had more combat aircraft than it does now, if not in 1916, then by the end of WWI. Alas, it did not. It appears that on November 11, 1918 the US tactical wings in Europe possessed 740 aircraft. Today the Air Force has 5,032 things that fly, including drones. Apparently tactical aircraft now number about 1,200.

    Mr. Rubio just lost my vote.

  6. peter said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

    David Fried: Are aircraft owned by the USNavy counted in the USAF's 5032 "things that fly"? Are CIA-operated drones? Are missiles operated by the Army or the Navy counted? Are satellites? It is hard to make meaningful comparisons over such a long time period. For instance, the US military probably has fewer horses and more dolphins than it had 100 years ago.

  7. S Frankel said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    David Fried: The reason I said that Rubio "obviously" meant "navy" was that that fits a meme circulating in right-wing circles. See, for example, this Washington Post article:

    So, I think that "air force" was a slip for "navy."

    Can't truthfully say that he lost my vote over this, since he never had it, but if he becomes a travel agent, I wouldn't book a flight with him.

  8. Noscitur a sociis said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

    "The reason I said that Rubio "obviously" meant "navy" was that that fits a meme circulating in right-wing circles."

    Another good tip off is that Rubio immediately corrected himself, clarifying that he's meant the navy would be the smallest in 100 years and the Air Force would be the smallest in its existence (presumably meaning since the designation of the Air Force as a separate device branch in 1947).

  9. Francois Lang said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    In 2012, during one of the Obama/Romney debates, I think I recall Romney's chastising Obama for having fewer ships in the navy than…whenever it was. Obama then responded that the military also has fewer horses and bayonets, but nobody was complaining about that.

  10. LilyC said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    All the press focused on the comment about memorization, but the racial dog whistles in this one blew me away:
    "You see everybody, I want the people at home to think about this
    That's what Washington D.C. does,
    the drive-by shot at the beginning
    with incorrect and incomplete information"

    "At home" contrasted to "DC", so that DC figures not so much governance but urbanity
    "drive-by shot" (did Christie prepare this line to use on Rubio?)
    and then of course the patronizing "incorrect and incomplete"

  11. GeorgeW said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    ". . . then of course the patronizing 'incorrect and incomplete."

    Which I don't think he bothered to correct.

  12. popegrutch said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    It seems to me quite possible that Rubio could slip a malapropism into a scripted speech. After all, he's not reading it off a cue card, he's giving it by memory. If the original writers said either "dispel" or "dispense with," he could easily slip into saying the phrase as it "sounds right" to his ear. I tend to do this unconsciously with Shakespeare quotes, for example, that I've read but never seen performed.

  13. Grover Jones said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 12:46 pm


    Good grief, I can't tell if you're being serious or trolling. You really believe that? Evidently you're the one with the dog ears, interestingly enough.

  14. BZ said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    I don't know. Rubio does directly address the snowstorm issue, which Christie's scripted speech oddly has not prepared him for. If only he'd stopped there, we would all be talking about how Rubio caught Christie, but then, not giving Christie time to defend himself and going back to his own scripted speech, Christie was able to completely avoid answering the challenge and go with a "there he goes again".

  15. Terry Hunt said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    @ peter

    " For instance, the US military probably has fewer horses and more dolphins than it had 100 years ago."

    That would certainly have surprised anyone in the US military of 1916. Horses, not so much, but dolphins?!

  16. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    @David Fried: Your comment made me scroll up to see if there was really someone identifying as "S. Frankel–Nerdlike".

  17. S Frankel said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    @Matt McIrvin – it would not surprise me, at least, if there were.

  18. David Fay said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Paul Krugman chimes in:

    "Hard Money Men
    FEBRUARY 8, 2016 4:28 PM February 8, 2016 4:28 pm

    So what will happen in NH tomorrow? I have no idea. We must dispel with this notion that anyone has the slightest idea what they are doing."

  19. Sybil said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

    Well done, all. (As of 7 am Monday)

  20. Sybil said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    urgh, that's 7 pm. So, well done all, except me.

    Alll power to the people!

  21. In which Marco Rubio dispels with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing | Richard Bowker said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 10:25 pm

    […] Log points out just how weird this construction […]

  22. John Bonaccorsi, Phila said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

    If Professor Liberman will have an opportunity to respond, I'd be pleased to know whether he thinks Senator Rubio's sentence was ungrammatical. Without getting into detail, I'll say I've been involved in an exchange in which I maintained that it was not, even though "dispel with" is wrong.

  23. Roger Lustig said,

    February 9, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    @David Fay: evidently a case where they're not good to find.

  24. John Bonaccorsi, Phila said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    I'll restate the question I posted above.

    Rubio spoke as follows:

    "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing."

    That sentence is faulty. "With" has no meaning, either independent or "phrasal" (i.e., via combination with "dispel").

    My question: Was Rubio's error a grammar error?

RSS feed for comments on this post