John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Politics muddles grammar

At Language Log this morning, Mark Liberman comments, “For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor.”

The instance giving rise to the generalization is an episode of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown in which Margaret Carlson belittles Sarah Palin’s syntax in a statement that is flat wrong about Ms. Palin’s grammar. Professor Liberman suggests that interested readers might compare Ms. Carlson’s syntax and Ms. Palin’s. *

Also today, Headsup characterizes an NPR segment on “Orwellian” political speech as “a burst of semantic weirdness.”

Guest Joe Queenan said, “ ‘War on terror’ is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means.”

To which “fev” replies: “With all due respect, but — are you out of your mind? The great advantage of ‘war on terror’ is that it's anything but ‘very, very specific.’ It's everything from a metaphor to an actual shooting war, and it happens everywhere from the Afghan-Pakistan border to whatever those suspicious neighbors of yours are up to behind the curtains there. It means vastly different things to different members of the audience. That's why — at least partly why — it works so well.”

There should be considerable benefit in a close analysis of the things public officials say and the way they say them — particularly the resort to euphemisms and code words. But to accomplish this requires knowing something about the language beyond casual use of technical terms for effect.



* Language Log also explored the shakiness of commentators’ grasp of grammar when Geoffrey Pullum demonstrated that Charles Krauthammer doesn’t appear to know what the passive voice is.

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