Thinks wrong

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There's been a certain amount of discussion recently about a grammatical aspect of Rick Perry's recent TV ad, which starts with a clip of President Obama saying "We've been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades", and continues with Governor Perry commenting

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Do you believe that?
That's what our president thinks wrong with America?
That Americans are lazy?

A typical discussion can be found in Michael Scherer, "So Much Happening in New Rick Perry Ad, Except for One Verb", Time Magazine:

A while back, I argued that Rick Perry made good television ads, and his newest spot–”Lazy”–is no exception. But it is also, in the tradition of the best political advertising, inaccurate, fanciful and grammatically adventurous. […]

Clinton struggled over what the definition of “is” is. Perry just gets rid of the word. Here is what Perry says: “Can you believe that? That’s what our President thinks wrong with America?” Most would say this sentence differently: “That’s what our President thinks is wrong with America?” Without the second use of the verb “to be,” the sentence is a lot more folksy.

Or "Rick Perry Is So Lazy That He Doesn’t Even Use Verbs", Gawker:

An outraged Perry responds, "Can you believe that? That's what our president thinks wrong with America?" Well, dude, you were just too lazy to include the word "is" in your slickly produced new ad, so maybe the president has a point.

I'm not sure that "folksy" is entirely the right word for this construction; and I'm pretty certain that laziness is not an important part of the story. Searching Google Books for "thinks wrong with" turns up relevant examples in mostly rather highfalutin prose; thus Christopher Norris, "Hilary Putnam: realism, reason and the uses of uncertainty", Manchester University Press 2002:

Putnam now finds that position unacceptable and indeed spends a good deal of time in the Dewey Lectures explaining what precisely he thinks wrong with it.

Or Mary Robinson, "Walsingham, or, The pupil of nature" (edited by Julie Shaffer), 2003:

Although Hanbury has said he condemns folly with “contemptuous silence”, here he tells his social “betters” (and in the following scene, in dialogue with Lord Linbourne, speaks of his betters) in no uncertain terms what he thinks wrong with their behaviour and attitudes.

Or this, from the BBC's  The Listener, 1969:

Exactly what he thinks wrong with homosexuality he never says; on this subject his ' rationale ' simply riots into purple-faced passages of belly-laughable irrationale.

Or Maurice R. Berube, "Beyond modernism and postmodernism: essays on the politics of culture", 2002:

Ravitch locates everything that she thinks wrong with American education in the twentieth century on the doorstep of progressive education.

So why do so many people interpret Perry's phrase as hick grammar at best; or as a reason to ask, as one blogger did, "How’s that lack of IQ working for you, Ricky?"

I speculate that some Americans recognize this construction as one they wouldn't use; but because it came from Rick Perry, they don't realize that it's fairly common in a certain register of British prose, and therefore in some writing by American intellectuals as well.

Here's the full Perry ad:

The general consensus, as explained in the Time Magazine piece cited above, is that this ad is duplicitous:

Did President Obama argue that “Americans are lazy,” as Perry alleges? No. He argued that American policy makers have been lazy in not doing more to attract businesses. (Obama’s standard line about the American people, by contrast, is that they are the “best workers in the world.”)

But Governor Perry's grammar is not an indication of folksiness, laziness, or stupidity.


  1. Skullturf said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    In my dialect, I can say "what he considers wrong with America", but not "what he thinks wrong with America".

    It's interesting the little leaps we make when confronted with constructions not in our own dialect. We notice (1) "I don't use that construction" and (2) "Rick Perry uses that construction", but we don't consider the possibility that the construction is a lot more widespread, and not limited to Rick Perry or whatever narrow category I'd be tempted to put him in.

  2. Mike M said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    I don't think it's laziness, and I definitely don't think its a manifestation of the formal 'I think it ADJ' construction either. Rather, it seems to me to be a phonological development, and it's one that I can sometimes hear slipping into my own speech (I'm from Toronto, for what it's worth).

    Basically, the third-person singular copula is nowadays almost always an enclitic 's in casual speech, ie the president's dumb, the road's closed, voiceless after voiceless consonants and voiced otherwise (more or less – I haven't done the research). With words that end in [s], like horse, you'd the horse's fast with a [z] and an epenthetic vowel. However, in my own speech, I find myself coming up with a sort of [s~z] hybrid that easily degenerates into an [s]. If I had to guess, that's what happened to Mr. Perry and I wouldn't be surprised if it was acceptable or semi-acceptable to many speakers

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 9:37 am

    Maybe it was imprudent for Gov. Perry to "omit needless words"? But I wonder whether the same reaction would have occurred if he had taken the high-falutin'-register tack of splitting up the sentence-initial "that's" into "that is."

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    I put "thinks it wrong" into a Yahoo search, and may of the hits came from Christian sites, which might explain Perry's familiarity with that construction (pace Mike M). When I tried it with Google, most of the hits came back as "thinks it's wrong". So is Google now in the grammar-correction business?

  5. Mark Allen said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    I've used this construction many times without too much thought. I assume I've used it in speech as well as writing. Add "thinks good," "thinks necessary," "thinks unworkable," etc.

    Here are some examples of this construction that don't use "thinks wrong," (I welcome an explanation if I'm misinterpreting Perry's construction):

    "As discussed earlier, they focus on the desired result itself, not the 'process' or the means they assume necessary to achieve that result." — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline.

    "So other views can explain the close connection between what we like and what we think good." — Henry Gensler, Introduction to Logic.

    "Also, some prepositions that we believe correct do not appear in the dictionary." — Wermter, Riloff and Scheler, "Connectionist, statistical, and symbolic approaches to learning for natural language processing."

  6. Bob said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    Coby, don't get Google nannied! More search tools -> Verbatim

  7. Craig said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    Hmmm. I personally wouldn't (i.e. don't think that I would) say "that's what he thinks wrong", but I think I would say "He thinks it wrong" in certain situations. I probably wouldn't think twice about, "Do you think it wrong to steal bread to feed a starving child?" but would probably not say "That's what I wrote for number four. Do you think it wrong?"

    Regardless, it's funny how "gotcha" grammar responses say more about the person responding than the person being responded to.

    I hear Perry's ad and I think, "Oh, that's interesting — he can form constructions with 'think' that are parallel to how I would use 'consider' or 'find' (i.e. 'that's what he finds/considers wrong'). I wonder if this is a regionalism on his part, an actual mistake that doesn't represent what he meant to say, or if, without realizing it, I've always been in the minority in not using 'think' this way?"

    Other people think, "That's not how I talk! He's DUMB!"

  8. D. Sky Onosson said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    I think I largely agree with Mike M on this (I'm also Canadian, from Winnipeg, fwiw). I can say he thinks wrong with and it "feels like" there's an is in there, even if there's no overt phonetic content to it.

  9. Acilius said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    I'm convinced by Mike M's post above.

  10. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    I also think Mike M's interpretation is plausible, but nothing particularly struck me as unusual about "what he thinks wrong" – or rather, it sounded archaic, not lazy.

  11. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    My first thought, as has been discussed, was that this is an form of predicative adjective. If you could trace it historically, it might prove to be just that. Don't know.

    I'm more inclined to think it's a kind of assimilation, viz:

    1. he thinks is
    2. he thinks's
    3. he thinks

    Maybe assimilation isn't the right term here, but it's all I got.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    Mike M's interpretation matches my own when reading and listening to it. I even wondered why no apostrophe before the S. But, after reading the post and comments, I'm more inclined to think it's a construction without the "is" (rather than with an "is" that phonologically disappears).

  13. SB said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    What strikes me about the examples (which sound pretty natural to me, while Perry's doesn't), is that the things that are thought wrong are more intangible than "America," if that makes sense. We're talking about homosexuality, american education, a position, and attitudes and beliefs, all of which–at least in my mind–have some sort of fluidity that America doesn't share.

    Another way of trying to say this is that a person can take issue with certain elements of these things without necessarily condemning the whole–or, perhaps more accurately, without condemning the proponent of the position/etc. as a human being. Saying, on the other hand, that you think something wrong with America means calling into question the–i don't know–ideological underpinnings of the country.

    That may not be an issue of grammar per se, but in my mind it does go some of the way toward explaining why perry's usage sounds more striking than the examples.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    As a UK speaker, I find "thinks wrong with" entirely unremarkable.

    But to me it's definitely, as ML says, in a formal/literary register, along the same lines as "I think it " as opposed to "I think it is ".

  15. Michael Jurkovic said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I just read this post and really liked it. I didn't really notice the ad to be incorrect, but something did not sit right with me. This post explains it, however. I never really realised how British my writing and speaking can be –the construction above does seem naturally, especially in the examples given below. And I am a native speaker of English, from California.

  16. The Ridger said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    For me, what makes this problematic is the PP complement to "wrong" – that is, "that's what he thinks wrong" is unexceptional, merely a fronted "he thinks it wrong", but it needs a to-infinitive clause to follow, not a PP. "That's what he thinks wrong to do" is fine (he thinks it wrong to do that).

  17. John Burgess said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    "He thinks wrong" is utterly unremarkable to me in my AmE dialect. Grammar Nazis just gotta hate.

  18. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    A strange thing about the predication be wrong with NP is that (based on a quick Google search) it takes a very limited set of subjects: basically only what and variants (whatever, WTF, …), and something/anything/everything/nothing. You can say

    Laziness is what's wrong with America

    but not

    Laziness is wrong with America.

    Why is this?

  19. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    The Ridger's comment makes some sense to me. Maybe what's going on is that, in the grammar of speakers who object to this construction, the PP with America is actually a complement not of wrong itself, but somehow of the entire VP be wrong, so that if you leave out the be the construction becomes ungrammatical?

  20. Ellen K. said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    What does PP stand for? I would have thought "past participle", but "with America" is a prepositional phrase. So what's the second P?

  21. Chandra said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    @The Ridger – I agree. It's the "with" phrase that mostly makes this seem off to me. Turning the sentence around, you end up with something like "Our president thinks it wrong with America", which is… weird.

  22. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Ellen K., you've answered yourself in your comment…

  23. Kylopod said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    I was surprised by this criticism myself. I'm quite used to hearing the verb "think" used with this sort of structure (as in "I think the matter settled")–more in prose than in speech, in fact–and I had no idea anyone considered it a grammatical flub. If anything, it sounds rather formal and stilted to me.

  24. Janice Byer said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    Born, live USA, never heard that kind of construction, which doesn't mean it hasn't been said to me, only that it hasn't jarred, which could mean I'm accustomed to hearing it.

    If I'd listened to Perry's ad before being alerted by LL, though, I can't say I wouldn't have noted it with my partisan radar set on gotcha, you, you Republican POTUS candidate, you!

  25. Ellen K. said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    @Tom Recht: Problem is, "phrase" begins with an F phoneme, not a P phoneme. So, even after typing it, it didn't occur to me that "phrase" begins with a P! (Using half of a digraph in an acronym does not make for an easy to figure out acronym.)

  26. The Ridger said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    It's not all PPs that don't work. For instance "he thinks wrong FOR America" is just fine. But for me, the "with America" can't work in the unfronted "He thinks it wrong with America", so "that's what he thinks wrong with America" doesn't work. "He thinks laziness wrong [for America to do / to do / for America]" all work. "He thinks laziness wrong with America" doesn't.

    For me, "wrong" can't take that kind of complement.

  27. The Ridger said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    PS – @Ellen K. Sorry for not expanding the abbreviation!

  28. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    @The Ridger, the problem can't be simply that wrong can't take a PP complement headed by with, since then What's wrong with America is laziness would be equally bad. The presence or absence of the copula seems to be part of what's going on, too.

  29. Breffni said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    I think "what's wrong with" is an idiom, which appears in only a handful of variants: questions ("What's wrong with you?"), free relatives ("That's what's wrong with me"; "I'll tell you what's wrong with America"), and then something / everything / anything ("There's something wrong", "Everything that's wrong", "Anything wrong?"). The "wrong" in the idiom means something like "broken".

    Outside that idiom, "wrong" doesn't mean "broken", it means "unacceptable" or "incorrect", and in that non-idiomatic sense it can be used in the "think it X" construction ("my little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near…"). In all but one of Mark's examples in the original post where it's used in that construction, that's the sense that it has: something wrong (=incorrect/unacceptable) with a philosophical position; something wrong (=unacceptable) with behaviour and attitudes; something wrong (=morally unacceptable) with homosexuality. Note that in these senses, you could substitute "about" for "with".

    The only one that doesn't fit is "everything that she thinks wrong with American education", where "wrong" does mean "broken"; but to me that sounds slightly odd, and so does Perry's. So I think Perry's using the idiom "be wrong with" in a construction that doesn't accommodate it. A bit like passivising "kick the bucket".

  30. Rod Johnson said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    I dunno…

    a. I consider that wrong
    b. I find that wrong
    c. I think that wrong
    d. I feel that wrong

    a. I consider that unacceptable
    b. I find that unacceptable
    c. I think that unacceptable
    d. I feel that unacceptable

    a.That's what I consider wrong
    b.That's what I find wrong
    c.That's what I think wrong
    d.That's what I feel wrong

    I feel a lot of difference between these. Where is it coming from? All the d examples feel unacceptable (but not equally so), all the a examples seem OK, and I'm all over the place on b and c., but the examples with "unacceptable" are distinctly better. Seems very squishy to me.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    I'm with The Ridger and Breffni. "I think it wrong" is fine in my English. "I think it wrong with America" and "I think laziness wrong with America" are not.

    The answer to "What's wrong with him?" can't be "I think being short of sleep is wrong with him."

  32. Darla-Jean Weatherford said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    I sort of hate to admit that I grew up in the community where Perry went to college (we were in college at about the same time, but not at the same school), but the phrase didn't seem odd to me. I think I remember my mother and grandmother using that construction; Nana grew up in east Texas and Mother in Houston.

  33. Eric P Smith said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

    On the ‘with’ question I’m with The Ridger, Breffni and Jerry Friedman. Breffni is right about the reason (“wrong with” is a fixed idiom), while Jerry gives a conclusive example in *I think being short of sleep is wrong with him.

    On the more general question of the meaning of “I think it wrong”, the divergence of opinion on this thread is fascinating. To some readers, wrong is predicative and the construction is literary, formal or even archaic. To some readers there is an understood is: “I think it is wrong.” To some readers, the matter is phonological: the is is not understood but elided. To some readers none of these three explanations work, and so those readers, erm, think it wrong.

    Let me add a fourth. To my ears, there is an understood “to be”: “I think it to be wrong.” No doubt I am influenced by an early grounding in Latin, a consequent familiarity with the accusative+infinitive construction, and a psychological hankering after the now totally discredited view that English grammar is essentially the same as Latin grammar. Be that as it may, I still hear “I think it to be wrong”. And the phrase “I think it to be” does get many Google hits (headline figure 6,280,000 hits, actual figure 483 hits).

    Which all leads to the fascinating conclusion: there are four groups of people, all of whom say “I think it wrong”, but who hear the phrase in their heads in four different ways.

  34. AntC said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    I (British, now living in New Zealand) did feel a slight awkwardness with … our President thinks wrong …, but I'm more comfortable with … he thinks wrong …. Perhaps there's something about heavy NP's?

  35. Breffni said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    It occurs to me that the idiom "be wrong with" is exactly parallel to "be the matter with": "What's wrong/the matter with you?", "I'll tell you what's wrong/the matter with me", "Is something/anything wrong/the matter?" (I admit I'm not so sure about "Everything is wrong/the matter", and though "everything that's wrong" sounds OK, "everything's the matter" seems a bit off.)

    I think the generalisation that covers both "wrong with" and "the matter with" is that they can only be predicated of indefinite expressions, not referring expressions, and not dummy "it". The adjective in the "I think [pronoun] [adj]" construction is predicated of the pronoun, which can be a referring expression ("I think him odd") or a dummy for an extraposed clause ("My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near"; "He thinks it strange that you didn't greet him"). If that's right, it would account for the oddness that some of us perceive in Perry's "that's what our President thinks wrong with America": it's a version of "Our President thinks it wrong with America that Americans are lazy", which is ruled out because the subject is a dummy instead of an indefinite pronoun.

    Eric P Smith: I don't think you need an understood "be" to make sense of the "think X [adj]" construction. Object predicates are common enough: "She found the story intriguing".

  36. Tom Recht said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    I think Breffni's generalization is right (cf. my own comment from 2:15), but I still don't understand either why this is true – 'indefinite subjects only' seems like a strange restriction on a predication – or how it accounts for the oddness of the Perry sentence. In That's what our President thinks wrong with America the subject of the bottom-level predication is either what or, in generative terms, the trace left by what, neither of which is a referring expression. You could, of course, expand the generalization to say that the subject isn't allowed to be a trace, either. But I'm still wondering why these predications come with such odd restrictions on their subjects.

  37. Eric P Smith said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    @Breffni: I grant I don’t need an understood “to be” to make sense of the “think X [adj]” construction. But it’s what my mind hears, nonetheless.

  38. A.M. said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    The reactions to Perry's grammar quoted in the original post sound too exaggerated. Of course it's not 100% good grammar, but, to me, it's not 100% bad either; if this construction was used by one of my students, I wouldn't mark it down as a mistake. It looks like the people quoted were dissatisfied, first and foremost, with the content of Perry's speech, and this triggered the negative reaction to the expression as well.

    Would be interesting to have this investigated in a study. Collect a few similar samples of language bordering on normal usage, from both Republican and Democrat politicians, and have a thousand of active supporters of both parties go through the phrases and mark them as correct/incorrect. Have a control group evaluate the same set of quotes without knowing who said it when. Would be a nice demonstration how our presuppositions and prejudices influence the sense of right and wrong in speech :)

  39. Jon said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    I am no supporter of Rick Perry. However, even though I disagree with his politics, I do not believe that this nonstandard speech indicates a lack of intelligence on his part. I emphasize "nonstandard." I am not a linguist, but I have taken a few introductory linguistics courses and plan on majoring in the field when I enter college next year. It seems to me (and for those of you who do have a lot more knowledge in linguistics, please excuse my ignorance) that Perry's grammar here, though slightly awkward, does not significantly hinder comprehension. In fact, as Mr. Liberman has indicated, this usage can be found in many works considered far more sophisticated than a political advertisement. If it were spoken by another person in a different setting, it could sound quite intelligent. Perry is not speaking standard English, but the folksy quality of his speech furthers his goal of connecting with the electorate, and he preserves the meaning of his message.

  40. Gene Callahan said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

    "I put "thinks it wrong" into a Yahoo search, and may of the hits came from Christian sites…"

    Perhaps the English-Christian link is the KJV? I don't know if the construction occurs there.

  41. LDavidH said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 3:15 am

    @Gene Callahan: No, a quick search on the shows no KJV hits for "think it wrong", "thinketh it wrong", "think him wrong" or "thinketh him wrong".

  42. Breffni said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    Oops, sorry , Tom, I didn't notice you had got there before me with the observation about subject restrictions (and more precisely, since I forgot about 'nothing').

    But the generalisation does account for the oddness (for some) of Perry's sentence: he's using the idiomatic 'what's wrong with' (='defective') in the object-predicate construction that needs canonical 'wrong' (='incorrect', 'unacceptable').

    'Only indefinite subjects' does look like a strange restriction if you state it in syntactic terms, but there's a small class of predicates that have similar behaviour: 'be wrong (with)', 'be the matter (with)', 'be amiss (with)', 'be up (with)' ('Something's up with her'), 'ail' (in 'What ails him?', not 'He's ailing') are the ones I can think of. These are obviously semantically related: it's inherent to their meaning that they have to do with a provisionally unresolved question regarding what or whether something is up/wrong/amiss/the matter, i.e., they are predicated of the variable in an open proposition. (Note that an appropriate answer to "What's wrong with you today?" is not "Hangover is", whereas "I have a hangover" is.) Maybe that's just shifting the puzzle from the syntax to the semantics, but I find it intuitively more transparent that way.

    Eric: I see what you mean. I don't think I share this intuition, but then that's your point.

    Jon: I agree that there's no lesson to be drawn here about Perry's competence, linguistic, communicative or otherwise, but it's an interesting linguistic question why some people have found this particular sentence odd, even unacceptable. Hope you have fun with linguistics!

  43. Trimegistus said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    The reactions to Perry's usage are the typical obsessive nitpicking by political opponents. Media people ignore President Obama's gaffes and Vice-President Biden's word-salad utterances, but scrutinize Republican statements with near-autistic intensity, hoping to find a "gotcha."

  44. Rod Johnson said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Your resentment blinds you to the fact that this thread isn't about people's approval or disapproval or Perry, but about the oddity of the expression he used and what underlies it. See the responses by Jon and Breffni above yours for evidence of this fair-mindedness. As Mark has pointed out many times, all kinds of politicians have had their language quirks discussed here. On the other hand, you seem to push this one theme with, dare I say it, near-autistic intensity (and then, in classic troll style, vanish from the discussion instead of engaging). If you insist on being a bore with nothing to contribute but scolding people for imaginary slights, don't expect to get much of a hearing.

  45. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    […] “oops,” and Slate told us where oops comes from. Mark Liberman at Language Log took issue with Perry’s latest campaign ad and his lack of a verb, as well as speech-based lie detection “software” that supposedly proves Herman Cain is […]

  46. Acilius said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    I think Ray Girvan made an excellent point above. It does seem that saying "thinks wrong with" often marks a relatively formal register, which may explain why the construction's appearance in what is otherwise quite an informal talk jars a bit.

  47. speedwell said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I have heard other fellow-Texans do this sort of thing, where the "is" after a word ending in S is mostly dropped. But since I do not hear the cadence I expect to hear with a dropped "is" in his statement (a doubled S, or more), I suspect something else is going on here.

    I'm guessing that the original script had Perry directly addressing the President, "Is that what you think's wrong with America?" Too confrontative, someone may have said; address the voters instead, and the practiced line, intended to be, "Is that what the President thinks is wrong with America?" became, "Is that what the President 'think's wrong with America'?" Crossed brain wires, fumbled diction, and sloppy editing. Dare I say that Perry and his staff were less concerned about crafting their message than about spitting their snark out on the airwaves?

    I am sure that Perry did not actually think that "…the President thinks wrong with…" was somehow the correct way to say the sentence.

  48. D. Sky Onosson said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    @ Eric P Smith:

    I think it is possible to look beyond the introspective "what I hear in my head".

    For example, let us look at a paradigm for "what X think to be wrong with":

    1. "what I/you/we/they think is wrong with"
    2. "what he/she/it thinks is wrong with"

    Now, for the first group, we can abbreviate that to:

    1a. "what I/you/we/they think's wrong with"

    This is an acceptable form for me. It doesn't get a lot of action on google, however:

    "what I think's wrong with" 746 hits
    "what you think's wrong with" 21,200 hits
    "what they think's wrong with" 3,040 hits

    Nonetheless, there is no way to interpret this form as anything but "think" + conjugated "to be". The counterpart is 3rd person singular "thinks" + "is", and the abbreviated form of that would be … ?

    There are other avenues to take beyond a corpus search, too. It may be that "think's" in 1a. is distinct phonetically from standard 3rd person sg. "thinks" in some way – possibly overall length, possibly the precise articulation of the "s" – that would be measurable. Extrapolating from that, in "He thinks that…" and "What he thinks' wrong with", the two verbs might also be phonetically distinct from each other (not simple elision of the verb). It's merely a hunch, I'm not insisting this is the case – but it is something that could be investigated if someone had the inclination and the time.

  49. Kris said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    When I saw this construction, my first response was to think it an intentional omission of the verb. Including a verb would have indicated a tense, and I don't think the Perry campaign wanted to do that. Since the Obama quote references the past, it would be difficult to include a verb and indict him for saying that Americans ARE lazy (presently). I.e., they omitted the verb so that the issue of the president not actually talking about current Americans can be ignored, or to pretend that the president meant something other than what he actually said.

    It seems like a conscious choice to me. In the same vein as use of the passive construction to avoid naming an agent of responsibility which is also common in political discourse.

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