Ellipses Elided

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Errors in punctuation sometimes result in misinterpretation, but they usually don't arouse the moral outrage that plagiarism does. Some should.

On June 24, 1826 Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to Roger C. Weightman:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

Yesterday, in an Independence Day speech at Monticello, President Bush quoted Jefferson's letter as follows:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be — to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all — the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

A technically correct quotation omitting the words left out by Bush would be:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains …, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

Bush's replacement of the original parentheses with dashes doesn't really change anything, but his removal of the words "under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves" seriously distorts the meaning of the passage. The original text makes clear that the bonds are those of religion and irrationalism, an important theme for Jefferson, a deist if not closet atheist who was very critical of conventional religion, while Bush's version makes it seem that Jefferson is talking about liberty in general.

This is a relatively minor fraud since Jefferson did not believe that religion was the only source of oppression and had he made the effort Bush could easily have found a passage in which Jefferson was talking about liberty in general, but it is nonetheless a fraud.

Had Bush used ellipses, he would have alerted the reader to the fact that the quotation is incomplete. In this case, where the omission of part of the text distorts its meaning, the very omission is improper, but the failure to at least warn about it compounds the offense.

P.S. I'm sure someone is going to comment that Bush probably didn't write his speech himself. I know that. If he gives the speech, he is responsible for its content, and he is responsible for using staff who know and obey the rules. The buck stops with him.


  1. Sili said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    How does one pronounce "…" in a speech? (Short of emulating Victor Borge.)

    Never trust a creationist ellipsis. Examples abound.

  2. John Cowan said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    What's worse, "to burst the chains and to assume the blessings of and security of seelf-government" clearly suggests "to burst the chains of self-government", an outcome that surely neither Jefferson nor Bush intended.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    @John: Doesn't suggest that to me. It would if it were "to burst the chains of…", but without the of I clearly perceive it as two separate VP's.

  4. Bill Poser said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 2:13 pm


    Its true that in a non-academic speech Bush could not have indicated the
    ellipsis verbally. (In an academic speech he could have said something like: "omitting a few words here", though admittedly that would be rare.) I'm pretty sure, though, that the text of his speeches is not simply a transcript of what he said. He almost never speaks spontaneously.

    In any case, my real point here is not merely that he should have used ellipses but that the omission itself is improper. When you see ellipses, they alert you to the fact that something has been left out, but you are still entitled to assume that the meaning of the quotation has been materially changed.

  5. Bill Poser said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    I can get the reading "burst the chains of…self-government" but it takes a bit more work than the other reading.

  6. Mr Punch said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    I certainly see why Bush left out that phrase, and perhaps he should have indicated the omission — but the remaIning words at least suggest it. "The chains"? What chains? In the context of Monticello, one might have thought the reference was to slavery, which couldn't be right. From a "literary" point of view, having screwed up the quotation already, he should have said "their chains," which at least would have sounded as if it made sense.

  7. Sili said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

    Oh, I know, I know. Sorry to be unclear. I'm not as good at being tongue-in-cheek as I'd like …

    I completely agree that the quotemining is intellectually dishonest. And the point of my links was that this is unfortunately a much too common phenomenon.

  8. R N B said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    Bill, a great spot. I've referenced you before, have done so again at my site. I think you have been too generous, it appears to me to be a deliberate change in implied meaning..

  9. Alex said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

    It looks to me like that particular reference is a transcript of the speech, not the script. (A script almost certainly exists somewhere, but this isn't it.) It includes notations like "(audience interruption)", "[sic]", and "(Applause.)". It also has what would appear to be errors (whether of transcription or speaking), such as "A few moments, you will take part in the 46th annual…", which should start with "In", I believe. Hence, it seems reasonable to believe that this document was generated by somebody listening to the speech who had not necessarily seen the original script. In this situation, I'm unclear how Bush should have indicated the ellipsis while speaking, and how the transcriber could be expected to catch their presence (the obvious thing to do would seem to me to be to pause, but that could easily seem to be just a pause for breath, an unusually long pause at a comma, or getting lost as to just where in the speech Bush was). (The same problem, only stronger, is present with "—" versus "(".)

    So, yes, the script should probably have used the ellipsis, but I'm not clear how we can expect Bush to say them, or the transcriber to realize they were needed (absent looking at the script or knowing Jefferson's words very well).

  10. Colin said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    1. How do you indicate an ellipsis in a speech (not in the transcript or script, but in the actual vocal performance)?
    2. Perhaps the speech writer felt that the phrase "monkish ignorance" was too offensive and "persuaded them to bind themselves" was too ornate for today's public audiences.

  11. Bill Poser said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 10:29 pm


    Two points. First, in this case the ellipses aren't really the crucial issue, since the omission of the missing material grossly distorts the meaning of the quotation. It would still be wrong to use such an edited quotation with ellipses.

    Second, you're right that the version of the speech on the White House web site reflects what he actually said. Things like "(applause)" may actually be part of a script, but the audience interruptions occur in the same places as on the tape and this together with the errors indicates that this text was prepared using information from the actual speech. However, I doubt very much that this is a transcription done from scratch. Bush rarely speaks extemporaneously and this speech is much too coherent to be extemporaneous. I think that the way this text and most others were prepared is that someone takes the final draft and edits it to reflect what Bush actually said. That way it will be accurate if he decides to omit something or insert something spontaneously, but the transcriber doesn't have to guess about the spelling of names and things that were hard to hear. This is my understanding of how the "transcripts" of presidential speeches are prepared, but I can't remember where I heard this, and a bit of googling has thus far not revealed anything informative. I don't suppose any of our readers know the inner workings of the White House Press Office?

  12. Shmuel said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 7:14 am

    This is off topic, but there are some British antifascists in need of a linguist:


    Its an interesting story as well.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    This is off topic, but there are some British antifascists in need of a linguist:

    Who are the anti-fascists? Harry's Place is the home of a section of Nu-Lab, particularly, the Euston Manifesto Crowd, a collection of neo-cons who disguise themselves as leftists, Oliver Kamm being their most hilarious and nastiest representative. I'd call Tatchell and one or two of the other commentators a true anti-fascist, though he is guilty of the most appalling sloppiness in much of his 'research'.

    And whatever you think of the Israeli government, I wouldn't consider 'anti-fascist' to be a useful description for Hamas, or the British Muslim League

  14. Shmuel said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 3:47 pm


  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

    Bill is right that this should spark outrage. Sili is spot on calling it intellectually dishonest. Is is slander? Fraud? It deserves a strong word, something greater than misquote, because it's willful and exploits Jefferson's good name. Consider that Obama made headlines for "plagarism" for using a common phrase his friend had used that was written by a speech writer shared by them both, and yet this goes unmentioned, possibly for lack of a word to define it. That suggests we need to settle on a word. because it will surely happen again and it shouldn't. What would Jefferson label it, I wonder?

  16. Brian said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    Journalists covering speeches made by important officials often do simply call ahead and ask for a copy of the script, then read along with the speechgiver and edit the script to reflect any improvisation. It saves a lot of work for journalists and helps prevent misquotations that may reflect poorly on the speaker. Since local government officials often work this way, I have to assume the President would.
    It is, however, possible that the script given to reporters did have an ellipsis, but because of its strange place right before a comma, the editor (or someone along the line) mistook the "…," as simply denoting a pause.
    This just further proves that the speech omits an awkward piece of text, but at the same time I'm trying to hear Bush in my head saying "under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves", and I can't decide which is more awkward.
    Really this was just a bad choice of text to quote, and I agree that someone should've just kept looking for a better option.

  17. Dear Leader Does It Again « Honester Ciphers said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

    […] July 6, 2008 Dear Leader Does It Again Posted by honesterciphers under knowledge sharing, unadulterated truth | Tags: dubya, george bush, independence day, intentional misquoting, misleading omission, monticello, thomas jefferson |   It's no surprise that W. continues to feign ignorance and misstate facts. But as a UVA alum it bugs me a little more than usual when he warps the words of Thomas Jefferson. From Bill Poser at Language Log: […]

  18. stefan said,

    July 8, 2008 @ 11:41 am


    I think you are misreading what 'monkish ignorance and superstition' meant in 1826. It is not a general stand-in for, as you write, 'religion and irrationalism.' Instead, it is a reference to non-Protestant religion, specifically Catholicism and also to some extent 'Asiatic' religions like Islam and Hinduism. There is a long tradition of anti-monastic though in Protestantism going back to Luther, and this is the short hand for this view. Jefferson does not necessarily agree with all or even most of this perspective, but he is here using the language associated with it. Indeed, with late 18th century deism in retreat, Protestant non-monastic religion is viewed by large parts of the British and US populations in 1826 as part of rationalism.

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