In a swirl of synonyms and grammar terms, calling a noun a noun

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Dan Barry's recent article in The New York Times is headed: "In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie." And pretty soon, he is of course reaching for the dread allegation of writing in the "passive". Does he know what that charge means? No. Like almost everybody who has been to college in America, he vaguely knows that passive is bad in some way that he can't quite put his finger on, but he doesn't actually know when it is appropriate to use the term "passive" and when it isn't (see this paper of mine for a couple of dozen similar cases of mistaken allegations of using the passive). He says this:

To say that someone has "lied," an active verb, or has told a "lie," a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.

His "active verb" is not transitive, so it doesn't have a passive version; and his "passive, distancing" counterpart is not verbal at all, and hence has nothing to do with passive constructions. What on earth does he think these terms mean? Nouns have nothing at all to do with either the grammatical concept of passive voice or the rhetorical concept of distancing oneself from the content of a claim.

Perhaps the first sign that Dan Barry doesn't quite get it about language is there in his two-word opening paragraph: "Words matter," he says.

No, they don't; not very much. Because synonyms. What matters, in the context of what he is talking about, is truth conditions. The particular words in which you elect to frame a statement matter much less: its truth or falsity or vagueness or evasiveness or impact will reside mainly in the conditions under which it can be said to be true, and secondarily in the pragmatic implications it holds for the person apprehending it.

I'm not contradicting the drift of Barry's piece, of course. President Trump continues to make assertions with a degree of outright mendacity that makes one gasp. "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide," he says, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." No matter what reasonable definition you might adopt for "landslide", Trump's Electoral College win is not going to meet it. This discussion of American political landslides suggests that securing at least 375 electoral votes (i.e., 70 percent) is a sensible place to set the bar to qualify as a landslide in the Electoral College. So that gives us these landslides in the past century:

  • Clinton over Dole 1996 (379 to 159),
  • Bush over Dukakis 1988 (426 to 111),
  • Reagan over Mondale 1984 (525 to 13),
  • Reagan over Carter 1980 (489 to 49),
  • Nixon over McGovern 1972 (520 to 17),
  • Johnson over Goldwater 1964 (486 to 52),
  • Eisenhower over Stevenson 1956 (457 to 89),
  • Roosevelt over Dewey 1944 (432 to 99),
  • Roosevelt over Wilkie 1940 (449 to 82),
  • Roosevelt over Landon 1936 (523 to 8),
  • Roosevelt over Hoover 1932 (472 to 59)
  • Hoover over Smith 1928 (444 to 87),
  • Coolidge over Davis 1924 (382 to 136),
  • Harding over Cox 1920 (404 to 127).

That's roughly what landslides look like. And what Trump got was 304 to Clinton's 227, which means he got only 57.25 percent of the Electoral College votes. That's a relatively close election, definitely not a landslide. Even if we said 60 percent would do instead of 70, which is pretty lenient, it's still not a landslide. 57/100 is not a passing grade for most instructors, and certainly doesn't count as acing the test.

For Trump to call his victory a landslide can certainly be counted as telling a lie; but to return to our topic here, for me to call it a lie, or say that he told a lie, is not the slightest bit distancing or "passive". "He lied" and "He told a lie" are essentially synonymous: if one is true the other is true. And they are both bold and direct ways of stating the charge.

What about the claim that how he would have taken the popular vote too but for the millions of illegals voting? Is that a lie too? Well, the popular vote win for Clinton was 65,845,063 – 62,980,160 = 2,864,903. So you need to cancel out 2,864,904 votes on grounds of illegality: not being a citizen, double voting, being a dog or a felon, being certifiably dead, that sort of thing.

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, has said more than once that there was "zero evidence of fraud" in the 2016 election.

It is true that someone called Gregg Phillips put out an 11-word tweet saying "We have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens." But hey, I could put out a tweet saying that I have verified more than three million monkeys voting for Trump. I haven't got any evidence of my monkeys, and Phillips couldn't supply any details of any study at all when contacted by PolitiFact. It was the purest kind of fake news.

People who have made a serious search for evidence of illegal voters have come up with figures in the two-digit range. News21 were able to find 56 cases of noncitizens citing between in the 12 years from 2000 to 2011, which includes 6 national election years, so that's about 9 per election. But we can get to a higher number if we follow the efforts of Governor Rick Scott in Florida, who launched a program to track down and deregister what was initially thought to be 182,000 cases of noncitizens voting. In the end, after removing spurious cases, the number of people taken off the rolls was 85. In a state of way over twenty million people, huge numbers of them born overseas.

So let's be really pessimistic about voters' integrity and suppose that 85 voters out of every twenty million are illegaly registered. No, let's be generous and round that up to 100 in every twenty million. And let's assume (implausibly) that it's just as true in Arkansas or Wyoming as it is in multi-ethnic Florida. Out of America's 2016 active electorate of 65,845,063 + 62,980,160 = 128,825,223 that would give us about 644 illegal voters nationwide. But let's be generous again, and assume that for every one of these devious illegal voters you can actually find, a hundred more are lurking in the shadows and the backstreets, every single one itching to vote for Hillary Clinton. That would add another 64,412 of the evil bastards, for a total of 65,056 Clinton votes. And if we want to show Trump winning the popular vote, we're still 2,864,904 – 64,412 = 2,800,492 short of what we need, aren't we?

It's beginning to look as if in Donald Trump, or his expert team of advisers, we have a case of almost unbelievable innumeracy; and more to the point for present purposes, almost inconceivably ridiculous lying about checkable numbers.

This is what Dan Barry's article was supposed to be addressing. But what did he do? He turned it into something about linguistics that was beyond his abilities. He started off by purporting to talk about words mattering, continued by discussing a few approximate synonyms of lie and getting Geoff Nunberg to say things about them; and went on to remark in passing that told a lie is in some sense "passive".

I wish I understood why journalists who would be perfectly capable of talking about political facts (like the astounding extent of Donald Trump's willingness to lie to the public), and psychological facts (like his infantile level of egotism), and psephological facts (like how many people voted and how many can realistically be conjectured to have been illegal voters), turn instead to making linguistic claims studded with absurd blunders.

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