Bushisms fewer than expected?

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We've spent a lot of electrons attacking the Bushisms industry — but we've never tried to make the argument that John Hinderaker put forward a couple of days ago, apparently in earnest ("The importance of being careful", 11/9/2008):

In this regard, President Bush is an excellent model; Obama should take a lesson from his example. Bush never gets sloppy when he is speaking publicly. He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting. In the eight years he has been President, it is remarkable how few gaffes or verbal blunders he has committed. If Obama doesn't raise his standards, he will exceed Bush's total before he is inaugurated.

W hasn't been shown to commit speech errors more frequently than most other people do — and I've argued that many if not most of the attacks on his speech are compounded of equal parts dislike for him and his policies, prejudice  against southerners, herd mentality, and intellectual snobbery. But the idea that our current president makes *fewer* verbal slips than most people do, and in particular 32 times fewer than Barack Obama (8*12/3) — well, let's say that it's bold in its refusal to yield to mere empiricism.

[Via Josh Marshall]


  1. Salaam Jervis said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 10:57 am

    Even if the mere count were true, shouldn't one take into account the severity of the verbal gaffe? A routine disagreement of subject and verb in a sentence about, say, the need for education reform, is still nowhere near as bad as referring to gynecologists being able to "practice their love." Most people accept that we all make verbal blunders from time to time, but those blunders aren't always the sort that are capable of making some large proportion of listeners certain that we are idiots. Surely someone can devise a scoring system that reflects this intuitive reality.

  2. Andrew Shields said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    I was wondering what you would say if that one crossed your path!

    I've been mentioning your discussion of Palin's use of -in and -ing in comparison to Obama's to lots of people, and while many people had actually noticed Obama's tactical use of the -in ending, they had not made the next step to consider how Palin's use of the same ending might also be tactical.

  3. Tam said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    I don't think Hinderaker's comment was about verbal slips of the "Bushism" type. I think it was meant to be about the actual content of what was said, like speaking rashly about our allies or enemies, etc. I still think it's incorrect, but not in the way you suggest.

    [(myl) You're right that there are many different sorts of verbal gaffes, real or perceived, and Hinderaker is (apparently) talking about factual errors, undiplomatic truths, and easily-misinterpretable sound bites, whereas we've mostly talked about idiosyncratic morphology, malapropisms, non-standard pronunciations, and so on. But we've also often considered matters of interpretation; and if you look at the archive of Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms, you'll find many examples of factual errors, and probably the odd undiplomatic truth as well.]

  4. iamkimiam said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting.

    I'd like to see a cite reference for this. I mean how did Hinderaker crack the elusive code of knowing a speaker's intention? Regardless, amazing that we now have an explanation for why GWB speaks the way he does, after all these years.

  5. Tom said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    And what evidence shows that this:

    He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting.

    is more accurate than this:

    He chooses his words with great difficulty, which is why his style sometimes seems halting.

  6. Alan Gunn said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

    It may be worth noting that Hinderaker's comment was in response to a report that the President of Poland came away from a discussion with Obama that left him convinced that Obama had promised to continue a missle-defense program. Obama then denied making that promise. I wouldn't defend Bush's speech generally, but I can't recall his having created that sort of misunderstanding.

  7. Lance said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

    It doesn't help, in this case, that the facts of the matter are at best muddled, but are more likely simply not the way Hinderaker states them: this article in the Telegraph states that

    A statement from the spokesman for Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, said that Mr Obama "did not make any promises concerning the anti-missile shield" in a conversation the two men had last Friday, despite claims to the contrary published on the Polish leader's website.

    Hinderaker doesn't seem concerned with the empirical facts of what Obama said; I think it's safe to say that he's unconcerned with the empirical facts of Bush's speaking style.

  8. MJ said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    @Andrew Shields

    "that one"?

  9. Lugubert said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    The Obama – Kaczynski conversation was apparently on the phone. We are not told if interpreters were involved. Anyway, thew exchange of information was ultimately between two persons of different mother tongues. Especially for sensitive matters like the missile shield, any understanding should have been double and triple checked before publically commenting.

  10. Moe said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

    In a related note, the media is reporting that we'll change from Bushisms to "Rhambonics" with the new administration:


  11. Forrest said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    Hinderaker is right; "they misunderestimated me" is an example of witnessing the birth of a new word, rather than a simple 'verbiage' gap! Along these lines, when Bush referred to the 'Taiwanian' people, he was ushering in a new era of political correctness and fighting back the tide of derogatory suffixes, like -ese … as covered on Language Log.

  12. Barry Nordin said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

    I have to assume all these error-free speeches are being read off teleprompters. I've noticed that when he speaks best, his head is down with his eyes on a document. Off-the-cuff, he is an idiot as anyone who ever watched his press conferences or replays on David Letterman can attest.

  13. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    The worst "misinterpretable sound bite" I can recall from Bush was his early description of the War on Terror as a "Crusade". In fairness I think he only said it once before his handlers advised him not to.

  14. outeast said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 4:39 am

    On the specific subject of the missile defence shield, speaking as someone 'on the ground' (as it were) I can say that the local politicians (in Poland and CZ) are all boldly asserting whatever they *want* to be the truth about the future of the shield plans. It's a real political football here – very, very controversial, with numerous (if generally quite small) public demonstrations both for and against etc. All I'm saying is that Kaczynski may well have been guilty (either intentionally or un-) of creatively misunderstanding whatever Obama said.

  15. Chris said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Hinderaker doesn't seem concerned with the empirical facts of what Obama said

    This is, shall we say, consistent with his overall patterns of behavior.

    Barring the presence of a recording device, when two people come out of a conversation with different accounts of what was said, it's generally impossible to be sure whether there is a misunderstanding at all (as opposed to deliberate after-the-fact lying), let alone who is responsible for it. Hinderaker characteristically ignores such complications and boldly chooses the interpretation he likes best – since nobody has the evidence to decisively refute it, all he has to do is say it loud and often and some people will believe it.

  16. Sili said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    In this context I guess it's easier to understand why Kaczynski felt the need to tell off MP Artur Gorski for calling Obama a "black crypto-communist", whose election "marks the end of the white man's civilisation" and "makes al-Qaeda rejoice".

    Of course his statements were "political, not racist" …

    Talk about 'gaffes'!

  17. Randy said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    Please oh please, would you point us toward some linguistic research that would allow us to show irrefutably that George Bush is stupid because of the way he talks. That would make so many people so very happy.

    If your research isn't doing that, you must be doing the wrong research.

    A few transcripts of Hillary Clinton's public speaking engagements have been posted here now and then. When I read them, it makes her look like a moron. I'm pretty sure she's not.

    Trying to decide someone's intelligence on the basis of their public speaking abilities is a petty, superficial game. It seems that whenever someone on this blog tries to inject some sense into the matter, a whole crowd of people chime in trying to work around the evidence so that their original conclusions about Bush's supposed stupidity remain intact, even though the original path to those conclusions has been broken. It's just as intellectually dishonest, or at least sloppy, as Hinderaker's own claims.

  18. Chris said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    There are, of course, many non-linguistic reasons to believe in Bush's stupidity; but the interesting thing (IMO) about the phenomenon Randy points to is: why do people accept, or seem to accept, invalid arguments just because they already believe the conclusion is true? True conclusions don't make the argument valid:

    All fish live in water.
    Sharks live in water.
    Therefore, sharks are fish.

    Sharks *are* fish, but this argument is still invalid. But why is it harder to recognize the problem with:

    Stupid people make mistakes when they talk.
    George W. Bush makes mistakes when he talks.
    Therefore, George W. Bush is a stupid person.

    Even if you have independent reasons to believe Bush is a stupid person, this syllogism is still just as invalid as the one about the sharks (in fact, I think it's the exact same logical fallacy).

  19. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

    Because no one is actually treating it as a syllogism. People see his mistakes not as proof that Bush is stupid, but as evidence, things characteristic of the stupid person they already consider him to be. Maybe that's unfair, but it's something we all do–how we react to what a given person says always depends, to some degree, on what we think of that person. It's healthy to test our preconceptions, of course, and I'm glad to learn that Bush doesn't actually misspeak any more often than most public figures. He's still a buffoon in my book, but that's nothing to do with his grammar.

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

    President George W. Bush himself has recently discussed this issue: "Bush: 'I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said' ".

  21. Jordan DeLange said,

    November 15, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    @ Alan Gunn

    IIRC, Bush committed a pretty significant verbal blunder where he appeared to depart from the normal american attitude of "strategic ambiguity" towards Taiwan way back in April 2001, before admitting that, in fact, he supported a One China policy and his comments about committing US troops to a defense of Taiwan didn't really amount to a change of position from administrations stretching back to Nixon, as they had certainly appeared to.

  22. So, farewell Bushisms « prescriptivist’s blog said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 5:49 am

    […] Liberman at Language Log suggested that Bush didn't make any more mistakes than anyone else (Bushisms fewer than expected?), saying that most criticisms of Bush's speech are a result of one or more of the […]

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