Reading problems?

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Or maybe writing problems? Donald Trump's recent speech announcing the end of the government shutdown was read (I presume from a teleprompter), but the reading was awkward in at least two ways: the president often pronounced unstressed function words in a full and unreduced form, and his phrasing was odd, sometimes to the point of obscuring the meaning.

Thus in the following phrase, the indefinite article in "a deal" and the definite article in "the federal government" were unreduced:

I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and re-open the federal government.

And in the next clip, a in "a very powerful alternative" and to in "I didn't want to use it" are unreduced; and the phrasing "I have a / very powerful alternative" is odd:

As everyone knows, I have a very powerful alternative, but I didn't want to use it at this time.

The sentence reproduced below seems to be ungrammatical as written:

Many of you have suffered far greater than anyone, but your families would know or understand.

Perhaps it was supposed to be "Many of you have suffered far greater hardships than anyone but your families would know or understand" — but in any case, the pause after "anyone" is odd.

However, the text at whitehouse.gov presents that sentence just as the president read it. Perhaps the statements was hastily written, with a word left out and a comma inserted, or perhaps the text was modified to reflect what was read:

You can examine the rest of the speech for yourself. I'll just note that at about 10:34, there's a speech error with /s/ perseverating to the end of the stressed syllable of "suspected", producing something like [sə'spɛs.tɪd]. The president continues without correction, but seems to be briefly thrown off his pace:



19 Comments

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 27, 2019 @ 10:39 pm

    I've noticed over the years that many lawyers, including politicians with legal training (such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), use unreduced a even in spontaneous speech.

    [(myl) Indeed — and not just lawyers. See "The phonetic poetics of 'a'", 7/25/2005, and "Of thee (and ay) I sing", 7/20/2005. But I haven't noticed this in Donald Trump's speech before, though I don't have time this morning to go check in detail.]

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 27, 2019 @ 11:19 pm

    The sentence in question does feel off but I guess something like "…suffered far more than anyone but your families would…" is what the borderline-literate writer had in mind, with "…suffered more greatly than…" also OK on maybe 1-2 days per week. As for the president not being able to read, that's what that is…

  3. BillR said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 12:23 am

    I'm thinking he was getting to the end of a line or maybe page on his teleprompter* and had to wait to see what came next. His pauses are being interpreted as some sort of vocalized punctuation. Probably an AI dictation-bot has a lick of code to handle pauses—how long before "comma next clause" becomes "period next sentence"?

    If I lift the flap on my tinfoil hat I can hear the voices tell me Donald Trump is either an animatronic AI or a remote-controlled zombie. The question becomes, who's running the show?

    * auto-spell-check wants to weirdly capitalize this word. Guess it's a trade mark.

  4. JB said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 1:39 am

    It does sound a little odd. On a similar note, I for one would love to see a rundown on Tom Hardy's speech as Bane in the last Batman film.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 4:15 am

    * auto-spell-check wants to weirdly capitalize this word. Guess it's a trade mark.

    Not only is it, but apparently it's spelled TelePrompTer…!

    But unless there's a monopoly on these things, I predict the teleprompter will promptly go the way of the walkman.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 7:42 am

    Nothing to do with Trump's speech idiosyncrasies but rather to do with Mark's reporting thereof. Towards the end of the article, Mark writes "just as the president read it". Now for me, "the President" requires a leading cap., whereas "a president" would not. The use and non-use of leading caps is discussed in another recent thread, but I am intrigued to know whether (in America, at least) "the president" would be the norm rather than "the President". Certainly we in Britain would never write (of HM ER II) "the queen".

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 7:54 am

    @Philip Taylor:
    FWIW, the Associated Press stylebook used to call for capitalizing "President" whenever it referred to a president of the United States, but now "President" is to be capped only when it's used as a formal title before the president's name.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 7:57 am

    I suspect he was reading this for the first time and was not comfortable enough with the text to express it like natural speech.

    (I don't think he is known for careful preparation, for anything).

    [(myl) My un-checked memory is that other examples of his teleprompter reading were not like this.]

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    This is the speech where he's supposed to have said "from sea to shiny sea". Any thoughts on that? It sounds like "shiny" to me.

    (For our friends beyond the seas of whatever appearance, the transcript reads "from sea to shining sea", a quotation from a patriotic song most Americans learn as children.)

    "I have a… very powerful alternative" sounds pretty normal to me, as if he were pausing for thought. I use an unreduced "a" in that situation (which causes me to self-peeve), and I think I often hear it from others. Pausing for thought while reading a speech may be odd, but he might have been thinking about whether to ad lib.

  10. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    @GeorgeW — I agree. It seemed as if he was not familiar with the speech. I think he does better extemporaneously than reading from a prepared script. It is said by those who should know that he does not like to spend a lot of time being briefed by his staff, so it's not too big a leap to assume he wouldn't want to spend a lot of time familiarizing himself with a speech prepared by someone else. Assuming it was prepared by someone else.

    As to President vs president — in my former life as a newspaper reporter 40 or so years ago, the style was to capitalize the P. I've been out of the business for a long time, so I can't speak to current style. I do know that newspaper style is not necessarily the accepted style outside of the business.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    @David Marjanović:

    "I predict the teleprompter will promptly go the way of the walkman."

    Not to mention kleenex and the xerox, among countless others.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    Re: the capitalization of "{P|p}resident": I go back and forth on this one. Also whether to capitalize "constitution" when referring specifically to the U.S. document (and get more confused about whether I feel that I should capitalize the derived adjective).

  13. Breffni said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    Oliver Stone used "thee" and "ay" incessantly in his narration of The Untold History of the United States. He also used an odd prosodic phrasing that runs against the syntax ("a chance to, implement the, agenda that their, Neo-Conservative allies…"). I found the whole effect very irritating.

  14. Trogluddite said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

    A few other phrases stood out as rather odd to me…

    "…see-through visibility…" (6:12)
    I'm sure that I've heard the idiom "emperor's new clothes" used already in relation to Trump's policies. Implying that the wall will be constructed from invisible steel seems unlikely to discourage this association! It strikes me as being a clumsy attempt to compress or render more vernacular some other, more accurate, phrase describing the ability to maintain surveillance.

    "They go into the desert areas, or whatever areas you can look at." (9:18)
    Again, this seems a rather clumsy phrase for a professional speech-writer to have written, and I suspect that someone may have decided to shorten a longer list of examples. After all, Trump's main line of argument in favour of the wall is that illegal immigrants are coming in via areas which *cannot* be "looked at" (patrolled by border control agents), and even a more figurative reading just gives us a concrete example followed by an ambiguous "anywhere".

    "And we have the lowest employment and the best employment numbers that we've ever had." (16:26)
    This is a misnegation, surely? I can see why "lowest" employment numbers might be considered "best" in his capacity as a cost-cutting employer, but it seems a rather unusual boast for a serving head of state. He seems to pause to read the auto-cue immediately before the first "employment", too, as if he may have wondered whether "unemployment" would have made more sense.

    The above are as written in the whitehouse.gov text of the speech, so I agree with MYL that the text is at least partly transcribed.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 2:18 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I also heard "shiny sea."

  16. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

    I think BillR makes a good point about the mechanics of the equipment and user interaction with it. I would guess that there are varying screen sizes, for instance, so someone used to a large display ( larger letters) with more text might read differently with a smaller screen that displays smaller lettering and also less text. Eye strain could affect the reader-speaker's ability to see the text or skim it in advance. Hasty setup could lead to positioning that is not optimal, with reflections or shadows on the screen, or outdoor use could be affected by changes in sunlight due to atmospheric conditions or changes in the angle of the sun.

    A rushed presentation that involved last-minute revisions that were made for political reasons, resulting in Mr. Trump being convinced he needed to follow the script without asides or riffs, also seems like a plausible reason for a delivery that sounds forced to me. ("Forced," as in apologies wrung out of children or mea culpa statements and apologies made in court cases or as a result of public shaming.)

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2019 @ 6:21 pm

    The "unreduced" pronunciation of "a" to rhyme with "day" must have started as a spelling pronunciation,right?

    GeorgeW: Thanks.

  18. Robot Therapist said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    Isn't that "unreduced" style what some people think of as appropriate for giving a formal speech? Just as one might also not use contractions? (I'm not saying I think of it so, but I believe many people do.)

  19. Trogluddite said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    @Barbara Phillips Long, BillR
    The Wikipedia page for Teleprompter describes a control for the speed at which the text scrolls, which may be controlled either by the speaker or by an assistant who is following the speaker's progress (it's impossible to say which in this case, as Trump's hands are hidden for most of the video.) Too slow a scroll speed would quite naturally lead to more hesitations and mid-sentence pauses, and it may be that the control is sometimes manipulated in an attempt to avoid overrunning scheduled broadcast slots or leaving too much time for awkward post-address questions.

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