Misinterpretation on the campaign trail

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The Presidential campaign of the past few days provides us with not one but two examples of false claims about candidates' statements. The first is the now widespread claim that Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin believes that the Iraq War is divinely ordained because she said that:

our national leaders are sending them [the troops] out on a task that is from God

It is true that Sarah Palin uttered those words, but as Volokh Conspiracy blogger Jim Lindgren discovered by listening to her speech, the claim that she asserted that the Iraq War was ordained by God is nonetheless false. What she actually said was this:

Pray for our military. He [Palin's son Trask]'s going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country – that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.

The crucial point is that she didn't assert that the Iraq War is a "task that is from God"; rather, she prayed that it would turn out that it is. Expressing the hope that something will turn out to be true is entirely different from asserting it. Without context, there is no way of knowing whether a clause is an assertion.

Many of the people following up this meme in the press and blogosphere have no doubt seen only the out-of-context quotation that is circulating and so are making this false claim innocently. Whoever started it, however, either has a poor command of English or is engaged in deliberate misrepresentation.

Meanwhile, on other side of the fence, much is being made of Barack Obama's statement that:

John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith.

which his enemies take as an admission that he is really a Muslim. He immediately explained what he meant to say:

Well, what I'm saying is that he hasn't suggested that I'm a Muslim.

Obama's use of the phrase "my Muslim faith" was interpreted by the interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, as an error for "my Christian faith", and that is how those sympathetic to Obama have interpreted it. It is quite plausible that Obama chose the construction "my Muslim faith" because he is so accustomed to referring to "my Christian faith", that when he needed an expression meaning something like "my being a Muslim", that was what came to mind. What I think that people are missing is that, although Obama could have chosen a less confusing expression, he did not actually make a mistake. What he said does not mean what people think it means.

The assumption that both Obama's enemies and his friends are implicitly making is that the use of a possessive construction such as "my X" implies the existence of X. It is true that it is unusual to use a possessive construction when the possessum does not exist: if I talk about "my dog", people will, other things being equal, assume that I have a dog.

The relationship between the use of a possessive construction like "my Muslim faith" and the existence of the possessum is, however, not one of logical implication. Rather, it is one of conversational implicature, and as such, it is defeasible. For example, if somebody knocks on my door, asks to come in, and explains that he wants to talk to me about my dog, I could say: "We won't need long to talk about my dog. I don't have a dog". The second sentence undoes or defeats the implicature created by the first. The fact that this is a well-formed sequence of sentences shows that my uttering "my dog" does not logically imply that I have a dog. Similarly, when Obama spoke about "my Muslim faith", he was not asserting that he is a Muslim; he was talking about the Muslim faith imputed to him by others.


  1. eric w totel said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 2:56 am

    thank you! I've been trying all week to make this exact point to a friend of mine!

  2. Marinus said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 3:43 am

    Isn't the confusion about Obama's phrase rather that using the possessive construction is a success term, like 'taste', in that it only makes sense to use if the object is actually there. You can't talk about the taste of meals you haven't had, and perhaps its the same type of misfire of language to talk about your non-existent possessions. If the possessive construction is a success term, then the move to concluding that the possessum is actually existent is a stronger one than in the case of mere conversational implicature. Success terms are also defeasible, when the object of the term is actually absent, so your basic point would stand, but Obama then would be guilty of having misspoke.

    I bring this up because I find your example of a sentence with a missing possessum unconvincing for what you want it to do. It seems to me to be just like talking about a meal you didn't have or memories about things that didn't happen, rather than the more gentle irony a defeat of conversational implicature would be.

  3. David Letterman said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 4:44 am

    The crucial point is that she didn't assert that the Iraq War is a "task that is from God"; rather, she prayed that it would turn out that it is.

    With respect, you have a valid linguistic point of otherwise minute significance. Her view is still one of believing that we should pray to "make sure" that the Iraq war is part of God's plan.

    "and that the plan is God's plan"
    Drawing the conclusion that she believes it to be divinely ordained is not far off the mark, it just doesn't acknowledge that she also thinks God and Bush need to be monitored to make sure they're not fucking up. Here she's got a good point, in my opinion, except i wouldn't do it by prayer.

  4. Philip Spaelti said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 5:05 am

    Another simple way to defeat such implicatures is to use adjectives like 'supposed', 'alleged', or 'so-called'. Obama might have made his statement more clear if he had said 'my alleged Muslim faith'.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 5:51 am

    David Letterman:

    I doubt whether Sarah Palin thinks that God needs to be "monitored", and don't see how her words can be interpreted that way.

    She seems simply to be articulating the perfectly usual Christian notion that prayer should try to align the pray-er's will with God's. This is not much different from praying that one might, despite temptation to do otherwise, do the right thing.

    There are certainly Christians whose idea of prayer might tip into "God-monitoring". Sarah Palin's choice of words suggest pretty strongly to me that she is not among them.

  6. Michael Lauer said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 6:09 am

    Obama tried to clarify what he meant by "my Muslim faith" : he immediately corrected Stephanopoulos's incorrection. Here's the video; it's at about 1:20.

    Palin tried to tell Charlie Gibson what she meant, but as far as I can tell from this clip he didn't seem to get it.

  7. Rawley Grau said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    In Palin's defense (although I'm far from being a fan of hers), what she said was that we should pray that our national leaders be guided by God, that a) they have a plan (and it is interesting that she seems to doubt that they do) and b) that the plan they have is in accord with God's plan. This is the kind of thing people of faith have been praying for thousands of years: that we have wise leaders who are guided by the will of God.

    Obama's statement is also easily interpreted, as Philip Spaelti pointed out: "my (alleged) Muslim faith". I read "my Muslim faith" as equal to "my being a Muslim", thus: "He has not talked about my being a Muslim", which means simply that McCain has not said the Obama is a Muslim.

    There is something really perverse about the way campaigns take their opponents' words out of context and wilfully misinterpret them.

  8. David Letterman said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    David Eddyshaw:

    If there were a plan, but that plan is not God's plan, then the buck does not stop at the generals or President Bush, I would go right to the top and blame God herself for the oversight. Whether Ms Palin would do so is not clear from her remarks.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    I reckon Ms Palin has a lot of praying to do.

  10. Alan Gunn said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    One difference between the two misrepresentations is that the one about what Palin said is being widely repeated in the mainstream media and on supposedly "responsible" blogs. The misrepresentation of what Obama meant is something I personally haven't seen; the right-wing blogs I read have all defended Obama on this point. I'm sure there are some lunatic-fringe people spreading the Obama quote out of context, but they haven't gotten much play, I think.

    I don't plan to vote for either ticket, but the frenzy about Palin in the press and among some commenters may just change my mind. She (like Obama, Bidem, and McCain) wouldn't be on my top 100 list of potential presidents, but she's not the fool she's portrayed as. The Washington Post recently mocked her for saying that our troops in Iraq are fighting Al Quaeda. Last time I looked, they were.

  11. John Cowan said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    Time to close down comments, I think.

  12. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Poster Poser is of course correct in that Palin did not assert that the Iraq war (or more broadly, Palin's interpretation of the Bush Doctrine as to "rid this world of Islamic extremism") is "a task that is from God". We're left, though, with the strong implication that such a war is in the category of things that might be, and hopefully are, divinely mandated. That association, whether asserted or prayed for, is what's disturbing.

  13. Steve said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    Even if all Palin was saying is that she hopes that the war is God's will, rather than it is, she still said that the reason we should go to war is to do God's will, rather than because the war was necessary for our self defense, which would be the only legitimate justification. It's not all right to go to war just because you think it is God's will. As Juan Cole has pointed out, the only difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist is lipstick. Also, her new claim that she doesn't think she knows God's will is, is not credible.

  14. Sili said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    I vaguely recall reading an analysis that interpreted senator Obama's statement to have 'invisible quotes' – essentially what one would 'put in airquotes' in a less formal situation.

    Does anyone know if the senator is wont to use that gesture?

  15. JJM said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    Gee Steve,

    I thought this was a language log.

    We're discussing what we think Palin said or meant and how it appeared to have been interpreted – not whether we agree with it or not.

    Away you go now back to whatever forum, blog or site you usually frequent.

  16. Lance said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 1:05 pm


    I fear you're mischaracterizing the nature of presupposition and implicature here (as I think Marinus suggested above). A typical conversational implicature involves a conclusion the audience can draw, perhaps is even invited to draw. For instance, if someone asks me, "Is your brother a good golfer?", I might reply, "He's a very good basketball player". The conversational implicature is that no, he's not a good golfer; if he were, I would have said so. But I can continue by saying "…so I know he's good at sports in general; but I've never seen him play golf." That removes ("defeats") the implicature—in this case, not by denying the truth of "my brother is not a good golfer", but by denying that I have evidence to make the claim that he is a good golfer.

    Possessives don't work that way. If I tell you "My brother is a good basketball player", it doesn't merely suggest that I have a brother, it positively requires it—"presupposes" it. I can't now continue by saying "…though I don't have a brother", thereby trying to remove that requirement, because a presupposition isn't defeasible.

    Instead, I'm going to venture the opinion that what's going on here is metalinguistic (though I hesitate, because it's easy to cry out "metalinguistic negation!" as an explanation even when it's not what's actually happening). If I say "We don't have to talk very long about my dog", in a normal context, it presupposes that I have a dog, and asserts that we don't have to talk very long about it; but the negative phrasing can also be used to deny, not the fact that we have to talk for a while about my dog, but the very presupposition that I even have a dog. "We won't have to talk very long about X" works well as this kind of negation, but the more the negation is merely implied, the less well it works. So if you say "I'm afraid your dog will hate me", I can reasonably reply "My dog won't hate you—I don't have a dog", but not "My dog will love you—I don't have a dog".

    The upshot, ultimately, is this: what's going on in Obama's statement isn't removal of an implicature or even removal a presupposition. I think instead that either (a) "…hasn't talked about…" is a place where presuppositions are blocked (cf "If Obama is a Muslim, he needs to talk about his Muslim faith", where the conditional blocks the presupposition), or perhaps more likely (b) he's using "my Muslim faith" as shorthand for "my alleged Muslim faith". Note that in that case, while the presupposition that Obama has a Muslim faith seems to disappear, it's in fact just replaced by a presupposition that he has an alleged Muslim faith. Obama couldn't say "McCain hasn't talked about my heroin addiction", because not only does he not have a heroin addiction, he doesn't have an alleged heroin addiction. The presupposition of the possessive construction—the existence of the thing possessed—never goes away.

  17. James Wimberley said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    A more famous example of the ambiguity of divine support was the motto on the Reichswehr belt buckle: "Gott mit uns". This can be read, and probably was by most, as meaning "God is with us", i.e. on our side. But you can also read it, with better theological justification, as a warning: "Let God be with us", i.e. let us so act that God will be on our side. The warning could also be used as a sophistical defence of the motto in the knowledge that the general interpretation will be the crude nationalist one. I think that is what Ms Palin is up to in the interview; her words are technically sound Christian doctrine, but the subtext is "God backs the war."

    SFIK keeping the belt buckle was part of Hitler's 1934 deal with the German army that preceded the Night of the Long Knives – it was a concession to the generals, outweighed by the new loyalty oath to Hitler. What the Nazis themselves believed is clearly expressed in the buckle motto of their in-house army, the SS: "Meine Ehre heisst Treue" – "my honour is [identical to] loyalty". That left no room for God or conscience.

  18. Steve said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    JJM, two of the assertions made by Bill Poser are that the "crucial point" about Sarah Palin is that she didn't assert that the war was God's will and that praying that something is that something is true is "entirely different" from asserting it.

    I disagree with the first point for the reason I already explained.

    The second point is true, but it's not a relevant distinction for the same reason.

    You don't have to agree with me but I was staying on topic.

  19. Joe said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    > Also, her new claim that she doesn't think she knows God's will is, is not credible.

    I think most Christians would assert that no one can fully know God's will, so I'm not sure that should be regarded as incredible.

    There are plenty of other points about her that are more amenable to debate.

  20. Steve said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    Joe, maybe as a matter of religious doctrine you are right. But I was making a statement about what Palin really thinks. Her claim that she doesn't think she knows God's will is subject to reasonable doubt.

  21. Amy said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

    I once got into trouble with "conversational implicature" when I was a young student in Spain. My friends and I walked past a derelict playground overgrown with weeds. We were wondering why it would be allowed to persist in such disrepair, when I said, "I wouldn't allow a child of mine to play there." My Spanish friends immediately assumed I not only had children, but that I must have borne them out of wedlock as a teenager. (Neatly confirmed some rumors they'd heard about American youth!)

  22. E. Peevie said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    I tried to deconstruct what Palin meant by her statements about God's will and the war in Iraq in this post: http://greenroomthoughts.blogspot.com/2008/09/politician-and-pulpit.html.

    The best I could come up with is that she hopes that as things unfold, it becomes clear that the war is indeed God's will.

    We evangelicals tend to throw vague spiritual terminology around, without being able to clearly articulate our meaning. It's a potential problem in a VP.

  23. Threads from Henry’s Web » But the Whole Election is Out of Context! said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    […] to the folks at Language Log we have a discussion of how Sarah Palin was taken out of context when some claimed that she thought we were on a God ordained mi…. A simple matter of understanding both the situation and reading the whole passage is all that is […]

  24. baylink said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 2:35 am

    Has anyone considered – and I'm a obama supporter – that this could have been dog-whistle politics?

  25. David Marjanović said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

    The crucial point is that she didn't assert that the Iraq War is a "task that is from God"; rather, she prayed that it would turn out that it is.

    Of course, a less charitable interpretation immediately suggests itself: she knows full well the Iraq war is an unholy affair and prays for it to retroactively become blessed…

    And that still leads to Jonathan Lundell's and Steve's comments above: she obviously thinks there can be such a thing as a holy war, in which to participate would be her holy duty…

    "my honour is [identical to] loyalty".

    "Is called loyalty", more literally.

  26. q said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    Even if all Palin was saying is that she hopes that the war is God's will, rather than it is, she still said that the reason we should go to war is to do God's will, rather than because the war was necessary for our self defense, which would be the only legitimate justification. It's not all right to go to war just because you think it is God's will.

    Err, praying that some event is God's will almost never means doing God's will is the "only legitimate justification" for such an event. If you were familiar with such prayers, you would know that. If I pray that me going to grad school is God's will, I most likely have other reasons for doing it, some of which may be Godly, some not.

    On a similar point, going to war for our self-defense may itself be God's will.

    A final point, these sort of prayers are so common, it's pretty much impossible to conclude anything about what Palin thinks are proper justifications for the Iraq war.

  27. q said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

    An additional point of clarification. For many Christians, discerning God's will is a difficult and often insurmountable task and praying that our actions are aligned to it is often the best we can do about it. Think of it as a petition to God to recognize we are acting in good faith in our obligation to do his will rather than our own. Palin stating she does not claim to know God's will and her call for prayer that the war be executed within God's will is fairly typical.

  28. Steve said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

    Err, praying that some event is God's will almost never means doing God's will is the "only legitimate justification" for such an event.

    I'm sure that it is common for pious Christians to pray that what they are doing for other reasons is also God's will. And I'm sure they would say, if you ask them, that they should try to do only things that are God's will — at least important things — and not try to do anything that is against God's will. But for Palin to adopt that outlook about going to war is more than conventional piety. Even Bush does not, as far as I know, say anything like, "That's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan." He may think that way, but he doesn't talk about it.

    The point that Bill Poser makes in the post about Palin is important, but I don't think it is the "crucial point," because it ignores something very disturbing to many people about Palin.

  29. arbitrarymarks.com » Blog Archive » Sunday Linkdump: 09.14.08 said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    […] the past week include some further discussion of language abuse in campaigns, both right and left (Language Log » Misinterpretation on the campaign trail), as well as a couple of articles about the prospects of completing one's PhD as a minority […]

  30. Irene said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    I think Palin's sentiment could be expressed beautifully and succinctly by use of the Arabic saying "insha Allah" (God willing), which is used by Muslims any time they refer to the future. I'll see you tomorrow, insha Allah. He will be better by next week, insha Allah. We will be deploying more troops to Iraq, insha Allah. Although, I don't suppose I would recommend Obama use it :)

    Lance's analogy with the dogs reminds me of Inspector Clouseau checking into a hotel. Seeing a Dachshund lying on the floor, Clouseau asks the hotel clerk "Does your dog bite?" After the clerk says no, the dog proceeds to attach itself to Clouseau's ankle. Clouseau says, "I thought you said your dog does not bite!" To which the clerk laconically replies, "Eez not my dog".

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