Maybe the prescriptivists are right

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… at least about the use of  "summative that" in certain contexts. Thus one of Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage is "Vague Reference":

Vague reference is a common problem in sentences where “this,” “it,” “which” or other such words don’t refer back to any one specific word or phrase, but a whole situation.

Arnold Zwicky calls these things "summatives" ("Why are some summatives labeled 'vague'?", 5/21/2008), and I've been publicly skeptical of blanket prohibitions against their use, since it's often clear in context what the referent is meant to be, and excellent writers from the authors of the King James Bible to Bertrand Russell have been fond of them ("Poor pitiful which", 5/23/2008;  "Clarity, choice, and evidence", 5/23/2008).

But a recent political development has led me to re-evaluate my position.

Barack Obama, in Roanoke VA 7/13/2012 (transcript here):

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If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — that- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

In context, the two instances of that in "… you didn't build that; somebody else made that happen" clearly refer to the "whole situation" evoked by the phrases "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges." Maybe that great teacher is in there too.

But a very different meaning emerges if you take out of context the sequence

If you've got a business — that- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Now it seems as if that refers to the hypothetical business — and instead of an anodyne political cliché about the role of socio-economic infrastructure in enabling business success, you get a bizarre denial of the role of entrepreneurial agency. This opportunity for misinterpretation made the Romney campaign so happy that they posted a clip running the first sentence ("If you've got a business, you didn't build that") over and over, five times:

So a piece of advice to politicians and their speechwriters: Watch those summatives!


  1. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

    Even in context, the sentence is pretty confusing. In a sentence of the form "if X, then Y", I think the natural reading of summative that in the apodosis is usually going to be that it refers to the protasis. (Examples from Google: "If you disagree, that's your right." "If it seems strange, that's because it is." "If this sounds familiar, there's a reason for that.")

  2. Jonathon said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    I still think a blanket prohibition goes too far. A blanket warning, though, seems appropriate. It's always good for speakers and writers, especially novice ones, to be aware of their pronoun referents.

  3. boris said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    'In context, the two instances of that … clearly refer to the "whole situation"'

    There's nothing clear about it to me. In fact in my idiolect "that" clearly refers to "If you've got a business". There is no other interpretation. I just listened to the clip and the intonation does nothing to change my mind. If anything, I could say that "If you've got a business" is a false start indicated by an extra "that" that follows it.

  4. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    If this is meant as a warning that you should never say or write something that could be misinterpreted if it's taken out of context, then we're all in trouble.

    But of course, as Mark knows, unscripted talk is often pronominally loose. It depends a great deal on hearers using the context and their background knowledge and their assumptions about why you're talking.

  5. blahedo said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    I think the summative "that" really does apply only to the business, which in context clearly means that they didn't build the business *without a lot of help*, i.e. from the teachers, the roads, etc.

  6. Dominik Lukes said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    Echoing Arnold Zwicky's comment, I can only assume that both the title and the admonition is somewhere between hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek. Sorry, if I'm being too obtuse here.

    But obviously the key point is that no speech is safe from malicious editing (particularly when it comes to anaphoric co-reference) and this was just that. A straight forward lie, no innocent out-of-context misinterpretation.

    We could have an interesting discussion about accessibility and cohesive devices but nothing of this says anything about the need for "correct" usage or even special care to be taken for 'that' (I'm not even sure we need a special label for this use of 'that'). Let's remember the 'Lipstick on a pig' brouhaha – that was a case of exogenic reference but a similar issue.

    I'm sure Obama's followers will be just as eager to jump on similar problems from the Romney's campaign.

    Although, I'd like bring up Al Franken's quip here, is that sometimes excuses 'that was taken out of context' are only valid if the context was 'I would have to be a complete moron to think that…'.

  7. Shlomo Argamon said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    Count me among those for whom the "that" in question seems to virtually unambiguously refer to the business, even in context. The other interpretation didn't even occur to me until I read this post. Interesting.

  8. Carl Offner said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    I haven't been following the President's speeches, but this looks to me to be rather out of character for Barack Obama, which is probably why it's worded awkwardly. It looks to me very much like an attempted paraphrase of a famous quote from Elizabeth Warren some months ago, which not only went viral, but was much more clearly constructed.

  9. Bloix said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

    The problem is that after Obama mentions the "unbelievable American system" – singular noun phrase – he interposes "roads and bridges" – plural noun phrase. Then he says "business" – singular noun. Then "that" – singular pronoun. So "that" refers most logically to "business" but in context that can't be correct – it must refer to the "system" – but by now "system" is three noun phrases back. It's a horribly garbled piece of rhetoric.

    Compare it to the Elizabeth Warren statement that Obama was clearly copying:

    “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

    No ambiguity at all.

  10. Jay Livingston said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    Those people who insist that it "unambiguously" refers to business are thinking only of the grammar of the sentence rather than the flow of thought.

    The first that sounds to me like a relative pronoun: If you've got a business that [is thriving] . . . or some other way of finishing. But Obama doesn't finish. He drops the sentence and with it the idea of a business. So when he says,"You didn't build that," he could very well be thinking about the infrastructure he referred to in the preceding sentences rather than the business.

  11. Jeff Carney said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 12:24 am

    Yes. But if you accept the ambiguity here, you've gotta go along when, eg., Romney say corporations are people. The meaning is there, somewhere, in the larger context. To deny it in either case is to play favorites.

  12. Matt said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    I also naturally – and only, but for prompting – got the interpretation of that being in reference to the business, and Obama's pause seems to be just him realizing how far this utterance actually goes and momentarily faltering before recommitting himself.

    But then again, I think that interpretation is completely right and on message: what's your business but your lease in a building someone else built, equipment leased or bought from someone else and built and serviced by other still, a bunch of licences and trademarks and copyrights that are there only because some lawmakers set up a thing to make such things meaningful and an arbitrary collection of all those numbers and papers called "money" that we trade back and forth because we all agree that they represent value in our society? And that's to say nothing of the clientele…

    If there's ambiguity, or a possibly odd/Communistic meaning in depriving everyone of entrepreneurial agency, I think it would be in what you mean by "build".

    (I wonder if the quote is more ambiguous to Americans than people from countries without quite that same individualist national narrative.)

  13. johnesh said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    "Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
    This is another thing that I see all the time that I find really infuriating. It suggests that the sole reason for the internet's creation (I refuse to capitalize "internet") was so that companies could make money "off" it.
    It's like those Daily Mail headlines, "Immigrant freed to rape", with the implication that he was set free early for that sole purpose, rather than simply being acquitted or having finished serving his time.
    Apologies for going off topic.

  14. Nick Lamb said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 4:35 am

    It makes sense to capitalise Internet because this is the Internet, in the same way that Liz is (from my perspective as a British citizen) the Queen, even though of course there were and will be other queens and there were previously other networks-of-networks or internets.

    You can go the other direction too, a major system-wide change was scheduled for Flag Day 1966. By back formation other moments on which major system-wide changes were scheduled became known as flag days. Most of them are not scheduled for Flag Day, which is a minor holiday celebrating the US flag.

  15. Saskia said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    To me, even in context, it still sounded as if the two "thats" were referring to the business. In fact, I would find it confusing to parse this any other way.

    The inflection he uses in his speech makes it sounds as though he wants the "thats" to refer to the business specifically. It is another example of "somebody" helping with something.

    When I just read it without listening to it, I interpreted it differently though.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Why isn't the simplest analysis that: a) the "thats" in question unambiguously refer to "business" as a matter of the usual parsing conventions native English speakers would use for this form of words; but b) the resulting meaning is sufficiently politically counterproductive as to be unlikely to have been intended, making it probable that this was not a case of vagueness or ambiguity but . . . a mistake. A performance error. The sort of screw-up even fluent speakers make from time to time, and tend to make in a way that gets recorded if they are politicians. Pieces of the paragraph just got put in the wrong order and/or crucial qualifying words were omitted. That listeners can sometimes skip right over mistakes of this nature (because we're certain enough from context what was meant to be conveyed we ignore what was actually said) is an interesting point that has come up in other areas (I think e.g. the "no head injury too trivial to ignore" sort of construction) where many people will cut right to what they deem the sensible-in-context meaning without getting hung up on the fact that that's just not the meaning of the words actually used. But that doesn't seem to me to be the same sort of thing as genuine syntactic/semantic ambiguity. Context isn't resolving the choice between two available interpretations of what was said; context is telling you that what was said probably isn't what was meant.

    There is a further complication here as to the context, in that how strongly the listener's sense that what I take to be the (likely resulting from performance error) literal meaning is so implausible as to be best interpreted as an error (and a real error, not a "gaffe" in the Michael Kinsley sense of a politician inadvertently/imprudently blurting out what he really thinks) will depend to some extent on the listener's preexisting views about the political beliefs of the speaker, which may be tied up with the listeners' own political beliefs.

  17. Jay Livingston said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    I hope that the number and variety of the interpretations offered here put paid to the claim that Obama's utterance and intended meaning are "unambiguous." The article in the recent New Yorker on forensic linguistics has examples of similar disputes over the meaning of what someone said. (I'm also surprised none of the Loggers has posted about that article.)

  18. Dan M. said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:21 am


    Even under the theory that Obama meant to say those words, and that the normal rules of interpretation only allow them to mean something other than what he wanted them to mean, I think calling it an "error" is not entirely correct.

    It's a *violation* of the resolution rules for the pronoun 'that', but to call it a mistake assumes that the violation was unintentional. Given the context, and the desire to make the speech flow in a particular way, it seems at least possible that the choice of that violation was intentional.

    But for my own bet, I think Matt's interpretation is correct: Obama is claiming that the entrepreneur did not build the business, because the business that resulted was not entirely the product of the entrepreneur.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 2:18 am

    Another vote of support for "that" referring to "if you've got a business", even in context. Some portion of my parse comes from the fact that without taking it as the referent of "that", the "if you've got a business" plays no role in the sentence at all. I can't even call the Romney add malicious editing.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 2:18 am

    also, I can totally spell "ad" :(

  21. Viseguy said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    Obama was trying to say what Elizabeth Warren said — clearly, eloquently, passionately — here:

  22. Daublin said,

    July 22, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    I have looked up the transcript and the speech, and I feel the sentence really meant what it sounded like. Here's a transcript and a longer clip:

    The whole thing is about how if you have gotten ahead, you shouldn't feel special about it, that you were basically just lucky. Building the Internet is like building a bridge.

    Stepping back, I would suggest that political examples aren't a good idea.

  23. chris said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    You built a factory out there – good for you

    That would indeed be impressive; I have never in my life seen a factory built by one person.

    Similar remarks apply to most places of business, really.

    If you hired someone else to build you a factory, and it ended up a success, maybe you should pat *them* on the back, rather than yourself?

  24. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

    Late comment because I didn't actually listen to the transcript until reading the July 26 follow-up post (I don't come to Language Log for the politics), but my comment is more relevant here than there.

    I think the antecedent of "that" is more ambiguous in the written transcript than the spoken recording. In the recording, there are intonational cues that rule out the possibility of interpreting "business" as the antecedent of "that" without being disingenious. In the transcript, I can see how someone could misread it at first.

    Which makes me wonder how the transcript should be punctuated to indicate, as well as possible, the same intonational cues. I would do it by placing a dash after bridges, like this: "Somebody invested in roads and bridges — if you've got a business, that- you didn't build that."

    Then it's plain that the second half of the sentence points back to the first half. And therefore that "roads and bridges" is the immediate antecedent, standing synecdochically (I would suggest) for the true antecedent, which includes everything mentioned in the preceding sentences. I think that's the best way to reflect the intonation of the original.

  25. BlogArena » Blog Archive » Questions for Geoff Pullum: The ‘Grammar Gotcha’ and Political Speech said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    […] But then when it comes to politicians and the press, suddenly the ordinary social-psychological contract is torn up, and it’s time to catch them in errors and ridicule them and drag things out of context. And of course, much more so when it’s a campaign time and one side is looking for missteps by the candidate of the other side. That’s what you find when Barack Obama says, “You didn’t build that.” […]

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