The em-dash candidate

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Daniel Libit, "Transcribers' agony: Frustrated not by what Trump says but how he says it", CNBC 8/15/2016:

Few conventions in political campaign coverage are as straightforward and unassailable as quoting a public figure verbatim. After all, how can there be any doubt when you are putting down the exact words someone says?

And yet, as with many other parameters of the process, Donald Trump has complicated this, too.

Libit has many complaints about Trump's speaking style, but in my opinion, the article's theme is inaccurate and unfair:

His unscripted speaking style, with its spasmodic, self-interrupting sentence structure, has increasingly come to overwhelm the human brains and tape recorders attempting to quote him.

Trump is, simply put, a transcriptionist's worst nightmare: severely unintelligible, and yet, incredibly important to understand.

In fact, his spontaneous speech is easy to transcribe, because it generally consists of short phrases separated by short silent pauses. And it's not in the least unintelligible in spoken form. Like most real-world spontaneous speech, it can be hard to understand if it's all run together in standard textual paragraphs — see"More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence" (12/31/2008) for some non-Trump examples, or "Trump's eloquence" (8/5/2015) and "Gertrude Trump" (6/19/2016) for some prior discussion of Trump's style — but in fact it works pretty well if printed as free verse.

Thus a passage from Trump's 8/13/2016 rally in Fairfield CT:

I'll tell you in particular lately
we have a newspaper
that's failing badly
it's losing a lot of money
it's gonna be out of business very soon
the New York Times OK?
I love it!
And
they wrote a story today
"anonymous sources have said"
three anonymous sources, anonymous this, anonymous that
they don't use names, I don't really think they have any names OK?
but "anonymous sources have said"
there are no anonymous s- you know with my campaign, I'll be honest with you
it's me
it's me
they never call me
they don't call me
but these are the most dishonest people
The good news is- I love- you know I put down
"failing @ New York Times"
the newspaper's going to hell
they got a couple of reporters in that newspaper who are so bad
with- I mean lack of talent
but it's going to hell
so I think maybe what we'll do
maybe we'll start thinking about taking their press credentials away from them
maybe we'll do that
I think so
I think so
you know
when they write dishonest stories
you can't read em it's so much
you can't read em there's so much I'd be reading all day long.
When they write dishonest stories
we should be a little bit tough, don't we agree, you know?
Real garbage they're garbage it's a garbage paper OK
So here's the story folks, talking about garbage
talking about garbage
talking about garbage
you have a governor in this state who's done a very poor job.

I think that's what Libit's sources mean by calling Trump "the em-dash candidate":

To untangle the jumble, his stenographers are increasingly reliant on a punctuation known as the "em dash" (—), which are used to separate parentheticals within the same sentence. Philip Rucker, The Washington Post's national political correspondent, said that among reporters covering Trump, he has become known as the "em-dash candidate."

But they're just missing out on the opportunity to transcribe Trump as poetry.

Libit's piece closes with a bunch of stuff about how

… there's an ongoing press debate as to whether quoting Trump verbatim conveys him most accurately. This debate divides, in part, between those who think Trump is merely inarticulate, and those who think he's being savvily obtuse.

I really don't understand this argument, because it's false that Trump is in any way inarticulate. He makes skilled use of the resources of the spoken language, and if the results don't translate very well to standard written paragraphs, that's just evidence of the inadequacy of orthography. He often communicates by implication rather than by explicit statement, and sometimes says things are that false or misleading — but those are properties that he shares with many other politicians and hucksters who have learned to speak in prose suitable for paragraphed presentation.

Overall, I would feel more sympathy with the journalists' complaints about the difficulty of rendering Donald Trump in print if  their profession didn't have such an extensive and pervasive history of scandalously "approximate" quotations.

A too-long sample of documentation and discussion follows. If you want a quick version, try "Approximate quotations", 8/11/2012, where I pick a random political speech (by Mitt Romney) and show that not a single one of half a dozen randomly selected news reports managed to reproduce accurately even one of the brief word sequences in what they presented as direct quotations.

"What did Rasheed say?" (6/23/2005)
"Ritual questions, ritual answers" (6/25/2005)
"Ipsissima vox Rasheedi" (6/25/2005)
"Down with journalists!" (6/27/2005)
"Bringing journalism into the 21st century" (6/30/2005)
"More comments on quotes "(7/1/2005)
"Ethnograpy, journalism and interview rituals", 7/2/2005
"Linguists beware" (7/9/2005)
"Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed" (7/9/2005)
"'Quotations" with a word error rate of 40-60% and more" (7/30/2005)
"This time it matters", 8/13/2005
"'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005
"News and entertainment", 9/11/2006
"Journalists' quotations: Unsafe in any mood", 5/24/2007
"Audio photoshopping at NPR", 5/31/2007
"Standardizing non-standard language vs. careless misquotation", 8/12/2007
"In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008
"Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008
"More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence", 12/31/2008
"Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times", 1/29/2010
"Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations", 8/3/2012
"More unquotations from the New Yorker", 8/4/2012
"Approximate quotations", 8/11/2012
"Quote approval and accurate quotation", 9/18/2012
"Journalistic quotation accuracy", 8/21/2013

 



16 Comments

  1. Bloix said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    Politicians and pundits for a long time have understood that the logic of a speech or column isn't what's important – what's key is the use of freighted language to evoke the desired emotions in the listener or reader. Newt Gingrich surfaced this tactic in the most nakedly cynical way with his 1996 "word list" memo called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control."
    What's different with Trump is that he doesn't see the need to embed the trigger words into the semblance of ordinary coherent speech. He doesn't need sentences, argument, reason, or meaning. He just wants enough language to summon up the target and then he sprays out the key words.
    In a way he's like an abstract artist. Reagan was a transitional figure – maybe like Whistler or Turner – who still painted images of reality even as the surface became more important. Gingrich was Picasso or Matisse, in which reality becames more and more difficult to discern. And Trump is the full Pollock, where there is no reality, there is only the long spill of paint.

    [(myl) This is a cute idea, but I think it's wrong about the content of Trump's spontaneous productions, and also gets the stylistic progression backwards, in both individual and socio-cultural histories.

    As the excerpt illustrates, Trump's productions are far from being a nothing more than a cloud of trigger words, "just one long spill of paint" — he has specific propositions to convey, and he uses the resources of spoken language effectively to get them across.

    The fact that he doesn't "speak in paragraphs" is the natural condition of speech communication, not some unique Trumpian stylistic innovation. Writing allows us to put down word sequences in an intersubjectively stable way, but it leaves out prosody — timing, pitch, voice quality — and as a result, coherent written prose has required, over the millennia, the development of a whole new set of rhetorical devices and conventions.

    Some people learn to speak as if they were writing, but most people don't. And some people who can speak in paragraphs when they want to, sometimes choose not to do it.]

  2. NSBK said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    Just want to note that even in your transcribed the Fairfield rally excerpt, you had to make use of (parenthetical?) dashes:

    > The good news is- I love- you know I put down

    I realize it's a small fragment, not a complete thought, and maybe an instance of something he said then verbally backed up and "overwrote", but some of those characteristics are shared with other fragments you have transcribed on their own lines.

    [(myl) Actually those dashes are meant to indicate broken-off bits of speech, a form of disfluency that's very common even when speakers are reading prepared remarks, and which is normally just edited out of transcripts, along with other disfluencies such as filled pauses ("uh" and "um"). In my own transcriptions I use "=" to mark these events, to avoid confusion with the many other uses of dashes, but I changed "=" to '-' here since self-correction of abandoned partial words is more commonly signaled with a dash.

    In fact, Trump's rate of fluent self-correction is generally on the low side compared to other American public figures, political and otherwise.

    And his rate of filled-pause usage is abnormally low — note that in the 277 words of this particular passage, there are none. In comparison, many other politicians have filled-pause rates in the range of 4-6%, which would have yielded more than a dozen examplars in a clip of this length.]

  3. Bill Benzon said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    Reminds me of Louis Armstrong's letters. He took a typewriter with him on the road and was always pecking out letters, two-finger style. He used a lot of dashes and dots for punctuation. Oxford UP published a collection of them some years ago, with somewhat regularized typography. But it was still pretty informal, a rather conversational, as you might imagine.

    Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings

  4. Not a Supporter said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    This really just points out that punctuation and orthographic rules are not something that have any relevance to perfectly effective spoken communication. Are other politicians easier to quote because more reliant on texts prepared by writers? If so, are they less effective verbal communicators in inverse proportion to how easily rendered into written text they are? I can remember similar complaints about George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush being ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness speakers–yet highly electable. Maybe writing-oriented campaign staff who build wonderfully correct speeches that bore the life out of 70% of the populace should take note.

  5. David L said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    In a comment on another LLog post I suggested that Trump's blank verse style was reminiscent of Walt Whitman. But the extract you've given here puts me in mind of archy and mehitabel. I am no student of poetry so perhaps others have more apt suggestions.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    I love this sentence:

    "But they're just missing out on the opportunity to transcribe Trump as poetry."

    And it's good that David L picked up on that.

    On a slightly different track, may we say that Donald Trump is a master of recursion?

    [(myl) Yes and no.

    His style is paratactic rather than syntactic, to use the old rhetorical terms — there's relatively little formal clausal embedding.

    But in larger-scale rhetorical terms, there are many embedded digressions, large and small, and sometimes parentheticals within parentheticals.]

  7. Acilius said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    It is apparently true that in 1964 one of Barry Goldwater's top aides angrily demanded of the press "Don't report what he says- report what he means!" I'm hoping to hear that line from a senior Trumpist this year.

  8. Haamu said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 9:45 am

    "In fact, his spontaneous speech is easy to transcribe, because it generally consists of short phrases separated by short silent pauses."

    "I really don't understand this argument, because it's false that Trump is in any way inarticulate."

    It appears you have a different definition of both "transcribe" and "inarticulate" than Libit and those he quotes do. They are clearly talking about the difficulty of forcing Trump's utterances into traditional molds as dictated by convention or style manuals. You are talking about something else.

    I admit, it's more satisfying to read your blank verse transcriptions, but sometimes, they leave important implications out. A good example comes from Trump's Aug. 9 statements about "Second Amendment people." To me, it's actually fairly important to try to understand whether the phrase "that will be a horrible day" binds to what goes before it (if somebody shoots Hillary) or what comes after it (if Hillary gets to name judges), or if Trump is deliberately leaving that ambiguous. A blank verse transcription doesn't clear that up. On the other hand, maybe a transcript shouldn't, but I don't think these journalists accept that.

    P.S., I'd also contest that blank verse transcriptions are necessarily easy. I expect there would often be disagreement about which pauses are long or significant enough to merit a line break.

  9. Second Responder said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    I noticed that the version of this article that was published yesterday misuses the words 'phonetic' and 'phonology', referring not to sounds or sound systems but to language use in general. The first of these has since been removed. The latter error still stands:

    Trump's crimes against phonology are multifarious: He often speaks in long, run-on sentences, with frequent asides. He pauses after subordinate clauses. He frequently quotes people saying things that aren't actual quotes. And he repeats words and phrases, sometimes with slight variations, in the same sentence. (bold added for emphasis)

    I don't understand how writers can lack a one-hour education in linguistics, the scientific study of the tool they use professionally.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    When I see a reference to "blank verse" I think of Shakespeare. Don't you mean "free verse"?

    [(myl) Yes — mistake corrected.]

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 11:45 am

    When I see a reference to "blank verse" I think of Shakespeare. Don't you mean "free verse"?

    With a little light editing:

    Trump:
    I'll tell you in particular: of late
    We have a newspaper that's failing badly.
    It's losing lots of money, gonna be
    Out of business soon–the New York Times,
    Okay? I love it! And today they wrote
    A story thus: "Anonymous sources said",
    Three anonymous sources, this and that,
    They don't use names, and really I don't think
    That they have any names, okay? But still
    "Anonymous sources said". You know, with my
    Campaign, and I'll be honest with you now,
    It's me. It's me. They never call me. They're
    The most dishonest people.

    Crowd:
    He speaks truth!

  12. Yoandri said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    Trump is crazy but his speech grabs anyone's attention because it gets to the point rather than abound with periodic sentences that people use to look smart. Trump is crazy but his speeches are the common man's poetry (even if that common man should be educated a bit more.)

  13. Guy said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    Am I alone in finding the construction "important to (hollow clause)" unidiomatic?

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

    Jerry Friedman: brilliant!

  15. Steve Morrison said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    Not the candidate for me, then – I've voted the straight en-dash ticket for years!

  16. Ray said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    I think what everyone is failing to take into account is that trump is speaking not TO an audience of ardent supporters, but WITH them. he's not giving a speech, he's having a conversation. in various clips I've heard on teevee, it's evident that when he pauses (when he em-dashes) there's something going on between him and the audience — they're reacting to whatever turn of phrase he's just said, he's taking it in; they're giving him an amen, he's chiming in right back at them… that we don't hear his audience at the same volume in the clips may explain why, if we're not actually there, we hear trump's pauses as disconnected "blanks." it all reminds me of how stand-up comedians deliver their routines nowadays — not as pre-packaged narratives delivered in one go to a quiet audience waiting for the big punchline, but rather as milking an audience as the joke is set up, getting the audience engaged with the premises, and then dropping the mic.

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