Blurt and babble

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Mark struggles to maintain some sort of balance to counter the amateur linguistics we see in the press concerning the language used by political figures, even to the extent of trying to defend Sarah Palin's often incoherent public pronouncements. But I think she'll continue to outflank him. Here's a recent quote, from the Larry King show (on display in the Doonesbury site's "Say What?" feature over the last few days):

If there is anything that I can do in terms of assisting there and allowing the credence, the credibility that that great vocation, that cornerstone of our democracy called the press, if I can help build up that credibility in the press and allow the electorate to know that they can believe everything that is reported through the airwaves and through print, I want to be able to help.

I'll grant you that credibility is a replacement, signalling a return to fix what she felt was a false start with credence; and that cornerstone is a replacement for another false start with vocation; and that if I can help is a third repair effort, restarting the whole passage that began with if there is anything that I can do in terms of assisting. And certainly, we all make at least some mistakes and repairs in our sentence planning, roughly of the same sort as these. But if I have understood the above 69-word utterance correctly, all Palin was trying to say was "I'd like to help build press credibility." That shouldn't be such a difficult thing for a journalism major to express orally after some experience in state politics.

I have to confess that I don't think anybody who regularly engages in this sort of chaotic blurt-and-babble speech in interview situations can be regarded as suited to a position involving political leadership or executive responsibilities in the government of a democracy.

I think being so utterly unable to explain what one wants to say is truly and reasonably regarded as a defect in one's qualifications for office — partly because being so inept at talking in a controlled and sensible way strongly suggests that there was no sensible thought back there, and partly because even if there were sensible thoughts back there somewhere, a leader needs to be more skilled at articulating them.

Having a president who regularly spluttered and stumbled like this when speaking off the cuff is part of what made the past eight years so awful for those who would like to be proud of the USA and its leadership.

It isn't primarily about Palin's politics: I cringe when I hear Democrats floundering to this extent too. Ted Kennedy has on occasion attained a degree of incoherence comparable to that of the Palin quote above (remember the classic Doonesbury strip: A verb, Senator, we need a verb!). I just think it means these people are underqualified for public life (albeit perhaps not vitiatingly so), and pointing that out is a legitimate criticism of a candidate's ability to do the job, just like presenting evidence of the candidate's venality or dishonesty would be.

Well, I say it's not primarily about Palin's politics; but of course it soon would be if I were so foolish as to open the comments area on this post. But I (have you noticed this?) am not foolish. By the way, to fully understand the scholarly achievement that Mark's careful and dutifully unbiased analysis represents you really need to contrast it with something like (what Language Log reader Jonathan Lundell pointed out to me) Wonkette's remarks on Palin's "hellish, primordial shitheap of misplaced modifiers, abrupt switchings of tense, and sounds that simply are not words … And gerunds … so many gerunds in places that do not need gerunds" (she refers to what The Cambridge Grammar calls gerund-participles; a commenter called Capitol Hillbilly says pompously that "she doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a garden variety participle", but in fact there isn't one). Wonkette does not have the same duty of scholarly care and linguistic exactitude as we do. They can be polemical. They are Wonkette. We are Language Log.

And because we are, just one more linguistic comment. A commenter at Wonkette called Ivenson says: "Gave up when she said 'you guys are wanting to dissect the past'. Awful passive voice manner of speech, she looks terrified." Terrified she may be, and look. And awful her manner of speech perhaps is. But You guys are wanting to dissect the past does not contain any instance of the passive voice at all. As is customary in popular discussions of syntax, the passive voice is being blamed for things it isn't guilty of. Remarkably few educated Americans can accurately distinguish passive clauses from active ones. They use the term "passive" to allude to some extraordinarily vague and broad notion that has something to do with not being very specific, and in particular not being specific about agency and responsibility for actions. You can find this discussed in a large number of Language Log posts about the passive that are listed here.

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