Presidential left dislocation

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Reader GW wrote to ask about a construction in one of Barack Obama's recent speeches:

I was looking at the text of a campaign speech by the President today in Pittsburgh, and noted the following paragraph:

And then I think about Michelle's mom, and the fact that Michelle's mom and dad, they didn't come from a wealthy family. Michelle's dad, he worked a blue-collar job at the sanitary plant in Chicago. And my mother-in-law, she stayed at home until the kids got older. And she ended up becoming a secretary, and that's where she worked at most of her life, was a secretary at a bank.

I don't know if this text is as-delivered or the speechwriters' version, but what stuck out at me was the "NP, pronoun" construction seen here in the first three sentences. I don't think I'd use this construction, at least when speaking in English, but I'm not sure how common it is, or even what it's called. Has LL covered this one before? Does Obama do this a lot? Is it an identifying feature for any particular (sub)dialect?

LL has indeed covered this construction before: "Left dislocation", 9/24/2008. You can read all the details there, starting with this:

Executive summary: This construction goes back to Old English, and is still widely used in spoken English and in some regional varieties ; but its use in formal written English has been decreasing since about 1500, and is now either informal or archaic.

Left dislocation from subject position, as in the cited examples from President Obama, remains pretty common in spoken English. I don't think there's any particular geographical or sociological restriction. Here are a few recent examples from the media:

Barbara Rodriguez, "Paper maps: Amid GPS boom, nostalgia finds a place", AP 7/6/2012:

In late June, at the annual exposition of the Road Map Collectors Association in Dublin, Ohio, collector Terry Palmer was selling some of his beloved maps. The 65-year-old from Dallas, Texas, wore a T-shirt with intricate route lines of the United States on his chest, back and arms.

"The GPS of course now being so available, a lot of new cars are coming out with built-in GPS. People are utilizing those, and they don't want a road map," he said. "A lot of the younger generation, they're used to having their phone, and they don't need a road map to figure out where to go."

Charles Mahtesian, "DeFazio mocks GOP freshmen", Politico 7/5/2012:

Here's how [Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio] describes freshman Rep. Billy Long's role:

"This guy, he's an auctioneer from Missouri, just came this time, and he starts reading it and he says, 'We just want to expediate [sic] projects, and this is all about expediating things' and he says the word 'expediate' five times, which of course is not a word, and I'm just like, 'What?'"

Jake Berry, "Supreme Court ruling on health care ignites local debate on law's financial impact", Nashua Telegraph 6/29/2012:

"For a lot of companies, it may be less money to pay the fine and put everybody in the state (insurance) pool," said David Scaer, general manager of the Nashua Country Club, which may now have to provide insurance to more of its 125 seasonal employees.

"Insurance is one of our most expensive line items, so you look at the choices," he said. "Do you limit employees to working less than the allotted amount of hours? These people, they need their jobs and they need their hours. It's decisions that, unfortunately, we'll have to look at."

Paul Hagen, "Phils' Class A rotation loaded with potential", MLB.com 7/6/2012:

"Having that confidence and that ability to maintain consistency is so important. Having your rhythm in your delivery, things like that, they're just little things that you wouldn't notice from the crowd. But as a pitcher they're very, very important." [Quote from pitcher Jesse Biddle]

Vytas Mazeika, "Local soccer teams can learn from the best", Palo Alto Daily News 7/6/2012:

"Being able to keep the ball like that, it sounds easy enough," said Menlo-Atherton boys soccer coach Jacob Pickard, whose team finished one game shy of an undefeated season in the winter.

An early discussion of the construction can be found in Elinor Ochs Keenan and Bambi Schieffelin, "Foregrounding Referents: A Reconsideration of Left Dislocation in Discourse", BLS 1976 (now available on line thanks to eLanguage); and Ellen Prince has written some justly famous papers on the topic, e.g. "On the Functions of Left-Dislocation in English Discourse", in Akio Kamio, Ed., Directions in Functional Linguistics, 1997; "On the Limits of Syntax, with reference to Left-Dislocation and Topicalization", in Culicover and McNally, Eds., Syntax and Semantics, 1998.

I'm confident that American presidents at least since Truman have used this construction, and probably all of them going back to Washington would exhibit it, if we had access to samples of their more informal speech.

I should add that some forms of left dislocation — though rarely the simple NP [PRONOUN X] version exemplified above — continue to be used in more formal varieties of English. Ellen Prince cites this example from Glass and Foster, Cacti and succulents for the amateur, 1976:

There are many groups of cacti worthy of collection. Even opuntias, the plants which tend to give cacti a bad name, with their nasty little barbed hairs or glochids, which are used for 'itching powder', and sharp, barbed spines which go into one's flesh much more easily than they come outi, even they have much to offer and can make an interesting—if forbidding—collection.

As an archaic example of the simple dislocation from subject position, consider Robert Burns' "My love, she's but a lassie yet", or the anonymous ballad "Sir Patrick Spens":

The king he sits in Dumferling
Drinking the blude reid wine:
'O where will I get a gud sailor,
That'l sail the ships of mine?'

Or the ending of Thomas Dunn English's self-consciously archaizing 1894 "Ballad of Babette":

And a train of lords and ladies,
The little maiden met;
And the Prince, he walked beside her,
The downcast-eyed Babette.

And never in the copsewood
Was the little maiden seen,
For she dwells all time in Elf-land,
As the good King Charming's queen.

For more on the history, see Javier Pérez Guerra & David Tizón-Couto, "'These hands, they are apt enough to dislocate and tear thy flesh': On Left Dislocation in the Recent History of the English Language", in Shaer et al., Dislocated elements in discourse 2008; and David Tizón-Couto, "A corpus-based analysis of left dislocation in late modern English", Estudos Linguísticos 2008.



53 Comments

  1. richard said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    This construction looks similar to the topic-comment (or "double subject") construction common in Japanese and Korean. Not being a linguist, I'm unfamiliar with the literature on this–are they considered structurally or functionally similar?

  2. languagehat said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    Me, I'd never use it.

  3. Dave K said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    In spoken English, it seems, at least in the examples given, to be a rhetorical device. The speaker wants to pause after the NP to give it emphasis and fills in the space with the appropriate pronoun.

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    Very common in spoken British English, all over the country I think.

  5. Lazar said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    French uses both left and right dislocation quite extensively.

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    Swedes, they use it perhaps to excess.

  7. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 10:03 am

    I'd suggest that the reason the reader noticed the construction is that he (or she) read the speech instead of hearing it. But these speeches are written to be heard.

    As for richard's comment, the left-dislocation is a form of topicalization, though I think Prince, Birner, and Ward reserve the latter term for English constructions without a resumptive pronoun (e.g., "Beans, I like.").

  8. Rodger C said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    NEXT ON FOX NEWS: PROFESSORS ACCUSE OBAMA OF LEFT DISLOCATION.

  9. John Burgess said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    I recall grammar school cautions to avoid the construction when the preceding noun was a proper name, e.g. "James, he said…" or "Jane, she went…."

    This was in 1950s New England.

  10. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    @Rodger C: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President, he left dislocation."

    …Sorry.

  11. djw said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    @ John Burgess: Yes, teachers in Texas in the '50s were pretty intent on wiping that construction out, too.

    @ languagehat, Rodger C, and Jeroen Mostert: You're all just bad. Hilarious, but bad. Thanks!

  12. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    In general I have tended to prefer calling this structure "topic-comment" over "left dislocation" because it is not always the case that the comment contains a co-referent pronoun. I don't know how to hunt for real examples, but although I know the pitfalls of made-up examples, I'd like to at least try to illustrate:

    All these new employees, we're going to need more office space.
    That guy we just talked to, did you notice anything odd?

    And there are times when there is a co-referent pronoun, but it's later in the discourse than the sentence containing the topic:

    Their dad's doing well enough, I think. But their mom, it's so sad! I wish there was something I could do for them. She's got cancer, and the outlook isn't very good.

  13. Adrian said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    I commonly use dislocation in my speech but never noticed until an American friend pointed it out to me and told me that it irritated him. Is it possible that it irritated him because his English teacher told him it was wrong?

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    Every elementary school teacher and every junior high and high school English teacher railed against this construction (Northeast Wisconsin, ca. 1944-55). However, I don't think they made a dent in the usage. I don't use it (and don't think I ever did, even before I encountered these teachers, simply because my parents didn't) but it was very, very common.

  15. Dougal said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Just reacting to "I don't know if this text is as-delivered or the speechwriters' version," not that it's overly important: I was at this speech yesterday, and the quote as written sounds like the way I remember it.

  16. Joe Fineman said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    Sometimes metri gratia, as in the US national anthem:

    Then conquer we must, when out cause it is just.

  17. Mona Williams said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    In the Glass and Foster example, the referring pronoun serves to remind the reader of the topic of the sentence after a long digression. In this situation, a pair of dashes–often used to identify and set apart a digression–would seem to reinforce this function:

    "There are many groups of cacti worthy of collection. Even opuntias, the plants which tend to give cacti a bad name–with their nasty little barbed hairs or glochids, which are used for 'itching powder', and sharp, barbed spines which go into one's flesh much more easily than they come outi–even they have much to offer and can make an interesting—if forbidding—collection."

    Another place I wished to see dashes was in the one example I noticed with separate verbs for the NP and the pronoun, but without enough components to make a compound sentence:

    "This guy, he's an auctioneer from Missouri, just came this time…"

    With the phrase in commas set off by dashes, the sentence would be grammatical, but as written, it somehow sounds worse to me than any of the other examples.

  18. Circe said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    Just like richard above, my first reaction (as a rank amateur) on seeing the example was "topic-comment". Is there any significant technical difference between left dislocation in English and the topic-comment structure languages like Japanese?

    [(myl) See e.g. Jeannette Gundel and Thorstein Fretheim, "Topic and Focus", Handbook of Pragmatics 2004.]

  19. Circe said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    @Aaron Toivo:

    Again, I am only an amateur, but wouldn't you example be more typically rendered as the followin "in the wild"?

    All these new employees, we're going to need more office space for them.
    That guy we just talked to, did you notice anything odd about him?

  20. maidhc said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    My inclination would be to punctuate like this:

    "All these new employees! We're going to need more office space."

    The original example sounds fine to me in informal speech.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    @Rodger C.

    Glenn Beck on George Soros: "He's quite good at it, collapsing the economies."

    [(myl) That one is "right dislocation". Seriously.]

  22. Olof said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    Ya gotta have は.

    Count me among the folk whose first reaction was "this feels like a topic-comment".

  23. Steve Morrison said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    The liner, she's a lady.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    @MYL: Yes, it took me a while to find a right dislocation by a right-winger. Various conservatives can give a whole speech or interview with only one or two left dislocations and no right ones (that I noticed), in contrast to that one paragraph of Obama's.

    [(myl) The average rate of left dislocations in current American informal conversation seems to be about 1 per 200 sentences (e.g. according to Michelle Gregory and Laura Michaelis, "Topicalization and left-dislocation: a functional opposition revisited", J. Pragmatics 2001), which would fit your numbers. I don't have the impression that Obama's rate is normally any higher than that — like many constructions, it tends to occur in clumps, due to some combination of rhetorical parallelism and self-priming.]

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

    Without meaning to distract from the left dislocation discussion, I was struck by Pete DeFazio, who is something like 65 years old, using the "and I'm just like, 'What?'" construction, which I associate with much younger people. But I guess language change often works its way "backward" from younger to older, doesn't it?

  26. Rubrick said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    I tend to associate this construction strongly (though not exclusively) with ESL speech, particularly certain (perhaps caricatured) examples: "That Vlad, he is good worker, no?" As a result, I've assumed it's a much more standard construction in some other languages.

  27. D said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    Dan Lufkin: We do? I'm trying to come up with sentences in Swedish using it, but they all sound weird. Got any examples?

  28. languagehat said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Is it possible that it irritated him because his English teacher told him it was wrong?

    Not only possible but almost certain. Those English teachers, they're full of ungrounded prejudices.

  29. Picky said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    And in one version of the Agincourt Carol: Almighty God he keep owre kynge, his peple, and alle his well-wyllynge

  30. Picky said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    And in one version of the Agincourt Carol: Almighty God he keep owre kynge, his peple, and alle his well-wyllynge

  31. Picky said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    So the foregoing, that makes two versions.

  32. Rodger C said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    To actually address the topic, when I was in school (WV ca. 1960) this was called the "double subject" and considered "wrong."

  33. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    To me it sounds rather Biblical or ballad-y. In poetry, of course, it's a device that expands the options for writing constructions that scan properly. Years ago in an English class I attempted to write a new final act for "Hamlet." I wrote it first in prose and then converted it to blank verse, expanding it by about 30%, and with the use of just such devices.

    But in political speeches, it strikes me as the verbal equivalent of proppin' a foot on the cracker barrel and snappin' your galluses before gettin' down to business with the boys at the Gen'ral Store. Folksiness.

    Are there other rhetorical devices that can sound exceptionally formal/archaic and exceptionally informal, depending on context?

  34. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    @D — Var så god: Egil är en stor rökare, han. Hon vet inte mycket om barn, Agneta. Du, orkar du hjälpa mig med paketerna kanske? Osv.

    Egil is a heavy smoker, he. She doesn't know much about children, Agneta. You, could you maybe manage to help me with the packages?

  35. mahir256 said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    @Circe: You might as well put the prepositional phrase at the top of the sentence, as in:

    "For all these new employees, we're going to need more office space."
    "About that guy we just talked to, did you notice anything odd?"

  36. spherical said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    It's pretty common in spoken German. I'd place it in southern dialects mainly (especially Bavarian and Austrian/Tyrolean), but will readily change my opinion when threatened with hard data to the contrary. I also wouldn't expect to see a left dislocation in formal writing.

    Here's a musical evergreen from the 1950s where it features heavily:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfqesy5NA7Q

    This next song even uses a double left dislocation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nBm67Y93Q8

    It's a good-natured satire about a paragon of "Volksmusik" (a tacky, post-WWII brand of musical soporific that has little to do with actual traditional folk music, but never mind that here). The guy's name is Karl Moik, and the chorus line goes like this:

    "Der Karl, der Karl, der Moik Moik Moik,
    der kifft das stärkste Zeug Zeug Zeug,
    und da gibt er richtig Gas Gas Gas,
    bitte nicht verklagen, ist nur Spaß Spaß Spaß"

    The linguistic aspect of the satire works because southern German dialects (the only relevant dialects in Volksmusik) tend to use articles with personal names, treating names as if they were titles. The song pokes fun at this peculiarity by dislocating the first and last name (which nobody ever does in German) before continuing with another left dislocation.

    Rendered roughly into English, no rhymes:

    "[The] Karl, [the] Karl, [the] Moik Moik Moik,
    he smokes the strongest weed weed weed,
    and then he revs it up up up,
    please don't sue me, I'm only making fun fun fun"

  37. Circe said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    mahir256:

    Except that if I did that, it would probably sound more like Yoda speech rather than left-dislocation?

  38. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 12:49 am

    In grade school we were taught that it was wrong because it was redundant (pronouns are used in place of nouns, so you can't have a noun and a pronoun substituting for the noun in the same sentence, as I recall the explanation) (Massachusetts, 1960's).

    The version of Sir Patrick Spens I learned begins, "The King sat in Dumferlingtown," which has no double subject and scans a bit better.

  39. languagehat said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    To actually address the topic, when I was in school (WV ca. 1960) this was called the "double subject" and considered "wrong."

    In grade school we were taught that it was wrong because it was redundant

    See my comment above about English teachers and ungrounded prejudices. Language is chock-full of redundancy (look, I said "chock-full" when I could have just said "full"! and I started this parenthesis with a completely unnecessary "look"! stop me before I kill again!!); it only gets noticed and condemned when it happens to occur in a construction a teacher wants to deprecate.

  40. /df said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    Maybe the President's speechwriter didn't get the joke in ("…New polls indicate that millions of Americans are put off by the President's unorthodox verbal tic, which has Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opens his mouth….")?

  41. /df said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Sorry, the blog comment processor stripped out the referenced URL:

    http://www.borowitzreport.com/2012/04/28/obamas-use-of-complete-sentences-stirs-controversy/

  42. /df said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Sorry, the blog comment processor stripped out the referenced URL:

    http://www.borowitzreport.com/2012/04/28/obamas-use-of-complete-sentences-stirs-controversy/

  43. /df said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    Sorry, the blog comment processor stripped out the referenced HTTP URL:

    http://www.borowitzreport.com/2012/04/28/obamas-use-of-complete-sentences-stirs-controversy/

  44. Adam said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    The one-l lama, He's a priest.
    The two-l llama, He's a beast..

  45. Janelle B. said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I've noticed something like that in the song "Two Princes" by the Spin Doctors: "This one, got a princely racket"
    I can't decide whether it's an AAVE-like version of the left dislocation you've discussed here with the deletion of "he (has)" (my gut feeling) or something else. For whatever reason, I imagine it would be "This one, he got a princely racket" and is in AAVE or a similar dialect that would not use "has" in the sentence. I also thoroughly love the sound of sentences that omit the auxiliary verb even though AAVE is not my main, native dialect, and the combination of that grammar with this type of construction is rather euphonious to me as well.

  46. Jim said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    I remember this construction being heavily stigmatized in my family as sounding low-rent and vulgar. My sister picked it up from friends and my father especially cslled her on it over and over. She did finally give it up. Concord, CA – Bay Area – 1960s.

  47. Jim said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    I remember this construction being heavily stigmatized in my family as sounding low-rent and vulgar. My sister picked it up from friends and my father especially cslled her on it over and over. She did finally give it up. Concord, CA – Bay Area – 1960s.

  48. bloix said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    And it was especially low rent if you used an object pronoun in the noun phrase: Me and Jimmy, we went to the movies.

  49. Eugene said,

    July 10, 2012 @ 4:02 am

    As for me, I might do it this way, but I have no problem with left dislocation. It looks folksy and dialectal in print.

    This is a good example of the grammar of spoken English being a little different than the grammar of written English. A public speech is exactly the place where informal/unedited/spoken language meets the formal/edited/written end of the continuum.

    Those old-school English teachers would have done better to teach their students to edit their production according to the register they were aiming for rather than denigrating vernacular usage. That would have been enlightening rather than confusing.

  50. Troy S. said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    There's also the formulation of the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat: "Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more." I'm curious about the use of the objective case in introducing the left-dislocation here.

  51. Z said,

    July 12, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    In contemporary informal French, left dislocation seems on the verge to becoming the norm actually, especially with auxiliaries. It is also disproportionately common among children. I have long suspected that this is linked to the impoverishment of the inflectional properties of French verbs.

  52. Martha said,

    July 12, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

    I'm surprised to learn that people's English teachers corrected them when they used this construction. I'd never heard of that happening before.

    Regarding Rubrick's comment about this being characteristic of the speech of English learners, I have to say that I often don't know how to respond when one of my ESL students comes up with something like "My brother he is married." I mean, I don't consider it wrong, and obviously they're going to hear it, so I don't want to tell them not to say it. But they never seem to be using it for emphasis; rather, there's just an extraneous pronoun in there. Since it's only my lower-level students who say it, I just tell them the "extra" pronoun is okay but not necessary, and that it's better without it, and leave it at that, feeling very unthorough for not having explained when would be a good time to use it.

  53. Eugene said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 2:38 am

    English language learners do come up with this construction on their own. Their native language is an influence, though I don't want to say right now that speakers of language X tend to do it. On the other hand, speakers of X tend to put resumptive pronouns in their relative clauses, too.

    This is not a big language teaching problem; it's a very small one. We're trying to teach them how to use standardized English for international communication and academic purposes. Mastering the vernacular is something they need to work on in their own time.

    I wouldn't teach them that left dislocation is wrong. I'd be inclined to teach them the 'standard' way and describe left dislocation as a variant. They need to learn the 'single subject' construction before they can appropriately use the 'double subject,' right?

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