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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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