Defiant diagramming

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Eager as always to score high-school snark points, Maureen Dowd wrote today about Sarah Palin ("Sarah's Pompom Palaver", 10/5/2008):

Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.”

"Defies diagramming"? Sorry, that sentence may not embody the most cogent foreign-policy argument ever made, and it's so awkward that it might have come from a non-native speaker —  but it seems syntactically straightforward to me.

I'm no syntactician, but I believe that this labelled bracketing gives a skeletal analysis that gets the basic divisions right:

[S [S It [VP is [PP from Alaska]
[S that we [VP send those out [VP to make sure
[S that an eye [VP is being kept
[PP on [NP [NP this very powerful nation] [NP Russia ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ]
[S because they are right there ] ]

And fed into it yields a picture that is much easier to understand:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I don't have time to do a more complete or careful job, so more complete and more accurate diagrams are welcome — but MoDo should have picked one of Palin's more syntactically defiant sentences, e.g.

One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let's commit ourselves just every day American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again.

Or one of the contributions from Joe Biden that seem to be equally pointillistic in syntactic terms, at least as transcribed by CNN:

We don't call a redistribution in my neighborhood Scranton, Claymont, Wilmington, the places I grew up, to give the fair to say that not giving Exxon Mobil another $4 billion tax cut this year as John calls for and giving it to middle class people to be able to pay to get their kids to college, we don't call that redistribution.

It seems that Gov. Palin's linguistic issues have become part of the standard narrative about her, so that people are going to make fun of her language even when others around her are more incoherent than she is.


  1. Gabriel Michael said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    The thing that struck me most about that Palin quote was the unclear antecedent. What are the "those" to which she's referring? U-2s? Spy satellites?

  2. Eric Baković said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Via this comment on a recent post of mine: "Diagramming Sarah: Can Palin's sentences stand up to a grammarian?", by the author of this book.

  3. john riemann soong said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    "There are plenty of people out there—not only English teachers but also amateur language buffs like me—who believe that diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator."

    Oh great, not another bloody Whorfian?!

    Incoherent syntax does not incoherent cognition make. Case in point: Broca's aphasiacs who are otherwise very intelligent and mentally-disciplined.

  4. CH said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 12:07 am

    while this is certainly not Joe Biden's most lucid remark I think it's fair to point out a few things.

    Firstly, this is unusually tongue-tied for him and I think the transcription is partly to blame. I think it likely that "a distribution" is more likely "it distribution" and missing a period after "grew up". The statement beginning "not giving Exxon.." is a complete sentence and a cogent thought. The "to give the fair to say that" preceding it is likely an abandoned formulation in favour of the following:

    "Not giving Exxon Mobil another $4 billion tax cut this year (as John calls for) and giving it to middle class people to be able to pay to get their kids to college, we don't call that 'redistribution'"

    This is (even if you don't accept my punctuation) clearly someone who is thinking on their feet and working to express an idea.

    The issue (one of many) regarding Palin is that this incoherence is not in any way unusual. It seems to be the norm. Not being a good speaker or having a broad vocabulary is not, as you correctly note, a sign of incoherent cognition
    but Palin is neither a poor speaker nor uneducated. Thus it does seem fair to evaluate her ability to communicate as a sign of her ability to grasp and formulate concepts. Even the way she delivers prepared remarks and the way she stresses sentence components leaves me feeling she doesn't actually know what she's saying.

    Further, when you wade through Biden's words, there is an a articulable concept at the bottom of it. Palin's opaque remarks seem a deliberate strategy and this begs the question, "why, even under the best conditions, are you unable to articulate a clear indication that you understand what you're saying?"

    In addition, fair or not, communicating is part of a President's job. Bush 43 is a fair example of a poor communicator but in even the worst "Bushisms" (or at least most) there is at least a concept being mangled.

    Lastly, and sorry this is so long, I don't see anything wrong with desiring a level of manifest competence and professionalism in the presidency. Fair or not, if she were your investment strategist, your attorney or your doctor and she could not communicate any better than this, wouldn't you be surprised (to say nothing of worried)?

  5. Lance said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 12:53 am

    Interestingly, Bob Herbert also has a recent NYT column in which he claims that, for Palin, syntax "has no meaning"; and he, too, gives what I think is a singularly unconvincing example. (I wrote about this over here, in my own humble attempt at linguistiblogging.)

  6. Bloix said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 11:44 am


    We don't call it redistribution in my neighborhood — Scranton, Claymont, Wilmington, the places I grew up. To give the fair — to say that not giving Exxon Mobil another $4 billion tax cut this year, as John calls for, and giving it to middle class people to be able to pay to get their kids to college — we don't call that redistribution.

    Other than the false start of "to give the fair," this is coherent and intelligible. And reasonably competent as a matter of rhetoric, beginning and ending with the same contemptuous rejection of the word "redistribution."

    The problem with Palin is not so much the grammar and syntax, although they do hinder comprehension, as that the underlying ideas are incoherent. If you go to the debate transcript and try to find out what she was talking about in that "never again" passage, you'll see that she wanders indiscriminately from calls for Americans to live within their means to calls for oversight of bankers and investment advisors ("those entities in charge of our investments and our savings"). There's no thought being expressed. There are merely sounds intended to mimic thought.

  7. Jonathan said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    How bout this one ("Palin, on Offensive, Attacks Obama's Ties to '60s Radical," NYT Oct 5):

    "We see America as the greatest force for good in this world. If we can be that beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy and can live in a country that would allow intolerance in the equal rights that again our military men and women fight for and die for all of us."

    Broca's aphasics aside, this is a series of catchwords strung together incoherently, not a good idea that just happened to come out wrong.

  8. jk said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    Following up on Bloix — the tangles of Bidenspeak do seem largely to be made up of false starts and self-corrections. It's hard to tell whether he's talking faster than he thinks — and thus ending up in dead ends — or he thinks faster than he talks — coming up with different thoughts before he's finished the first ones.

    Palin, on the other hand, didn't show many signs of the hesitations that indicate someone's rethinking their sentences. Her statements tended to be produced as a constant stream, at least as I remember them. It's hard to tell whether that reflects her thought processes, or her training — as a pageant contestant and TV journalist — has enabled her to press forward with a sentence without stopping for correction or reconsideration.

  9. Tim Silverman said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    This may be my British background, but I parse that false start involving "fair" as

    "To give the—fair to say that not giving Exxon Mobil another $4 billion tax cut this year…"

    That is, he started to use "give" in a positive sentence ("To give"), changed his mind and realised it would be better in a negative sentence ("Not giving"), and, while he was making this correction anyway, also prefixed the new formulation with "Fair to say that" (perhaps elliptical for "It would be/It's fair to say that"), indicating what would be a "fair" (i.e. reasonable) interpretation of what counts as "redistribution". Thus the "fair" would be part of a hedge.

    I don't know if this is true, or even possible, but it seems reasonable.

  10. Palinpsest « Dead Voles said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    […] me to gloat over the incoherence and grammatical incompetence of Sarah Palin. Language Log has a nice careful version of the genre. I am amused. I'm all for it. We are, however, missing the […]

  11. Chris said,

    October 6, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    Lance said: "Interestingly, Bob Herbert also has a recent NYT column in which he claims that, for Palin, syntax "has no meaning"; and he, too, gives what I think is a singularly unconvincing example. (I wrote about this over here, in my own humble attempt at linguistiblogging.)"

    I say: "Syntax has no meaning. Semantics has meaning.

  12. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 7, 2008 @ 2:00 am

    The thing I've noticed about bad examples from Sarah Palin is that they don't sound like someone who's trying to produce language and making mistakes, but like someone who's trying to recite a memorized speech and failing. The feature I noticed primarily was jumping from topic to topic by way of combinations of function words that fit well with content words on each side, along with a prosody that makes sense within these regions but not on a larger scale. Of course, having noticed this, I can't help but wonder when she doesn't sound like that if she's just memorized her answers better and still doesn't know anything about these topics, or whether the campaign has actually tried to explain any of this stuff to her rather than trying to get her to repeat canned statements accurately.

  13. Bloix said,

    October 7, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    There are several examples of Palin speaking extemporaneously before being nominated for VP. She's perfectly capable of uttering intelligible sentences when she knows what she's talking about, e.g. that the war in Iraq is good's will:

    These extracts show that there's no problem with her command of English. Like the rest of us, when she's faking it, it shows.

  14. sandra wilde said,

    October 7, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    As others have implied here, diagramming, whether traditional or tree, isn't really meant for the fits and starts of oral language. The issue is coherence (in the everyday sense), not formal grammaticality. Cf. both George Bushes.

  15. E Munnie said,

    October 8, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

    I've been thinking about Palin's grammar for a while, and I wonder about the punctuation choices of transcriptionists in this fascinating political moment. As I read transcriptions of Gov. Palin's speech, my inner copy editor is constantly noting ways that the punctuation further muddles Palin's (ostensibly) intended meaning.

    I understand that actually listening to her is similarly confusing, but I wonder if transcribers tend to punctuate where the voice pauses, as a favorite style guide advises, or in some more artful and subjective way.

  16. Art said,

    October 8, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    Well, all politicians are less eloquent these days. Read a transcript of the Lincoln/Douglas debates sometime — and consider that it wasn't just Lincoln and Douglas being able to *say* these things, but that thousands of ordinary middle-class people gathered around to hear the speeches, in person, and were able to follow the intricate syntactic weave of language they constructed.

    The ability to code-switch from ordinary spoken language to "higher" discourse, to a kind of "spoken writing" — to be able to talk as though writing on a printed page, with the several-sentences-ahead chessmaster kind of planning that this requires — is basically dead in our society. Some people can still do it, and it's a remarkable, wondrous thing to hear, but in the age of TV it's a useless and therefore lost art.

    Which is a shame, because I do believe that being able to do so entails a kind of mental discipline that's a useful filtering mechanism for rational thought, long-term thought, etc. within the educated elite. Call it "Whorfian" if you like, I think there really isn't any question that to be able to debate as Lincoln and Douglas did they *must* have been smarter on some fundamental level than you or me. (Then again, I am an elitist who thinks that we've lost something by not requiring all academics to learn a specialized dead language to engage in academia. In China people were very conscious that literary Chinese was almost incomprehensible to an ordinary Chinese citizen, and that learning to speak and write "good" Chinese — a language almost as divorced from "bad" Chinese as Latin is from French — was part of the test for being worthy to receive the benefits of literacy.)

    At the very least, Palin's repeated, endemic inability to form grammatical sentences on the fly — the fact that she can't shape the form of her utterances while groping for their content at the same time — shows a certain lack of mental acuity. She may not be dumb in all ways, but she's certainly quite dumb in this way, and this is still a skill that's very important if she's going to go "head-to-head with Putin" or whoever.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    October 8, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

    that the war in Iraq is good's will

    No, no — that we should pray that the war in Iraq is God's will. (Or becomes God's will retroactively, or something.)

  18. Carl said,

    October 29, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    @Art, you may be overgeneralizing "our society." When I moved to North Carolina with my lawyer ex-wife, she discovered that in contrast to the paper "law and motions" style she was used to from San Francisco, law here is practiced old-school. The judges may or may not have read the briefs, but they expect the case to be argued orally and off the cuff before them. She had to transform her skillset pretty dramatically to be effective here.

    I think we tend to adapt to environments and develop the skills we need, within the limitations of native talent. Palin has apparently not needed glibness on-message before. She's getting noticeably better at it.

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