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/.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The president's grammar

After the administration of President George W. Bush, whose syntax frequently looped around is own feet and tripped itself, it hadn’t occurred to me expect fault-finding about President Barack Obama’s discourse. But today I have this inquiry from a retired classics professor:

Our president is a talented orator, but he makes lots of grammatical mistakes. Do you know if anyone has made a collection of his solecisms and written about them?

Well, writing in City Journal in February, Benjamin Plotinsky expanded a disagreement with Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman over the acceptability of using I as a subject — as in Mr. Obama’s “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” — into a sour complaint about the press’s “adulation” of the president.

The blurring of subject and object in pronouns is quite common in speech, and it often displays a class component. I once talked regularly with a janitor whose account of what he and his wife had done invariably began Her and I. The construction between he and I is often a misguided hypercorrection among education people who fear that the objective pronouns sound a little too downmarket.

Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are quite knowledgeable about grammar and the history of usage, and I would not be quick to dismiss their findings. Besides, the “for Michelle and I” solecism — a minor one at most — should be more excusable in speech than in formal writing. I give this one a nol-pros.

V.R. Narayanaswami addressed some of Mr. Obama’s supposed lapses in an article at Livemint.com in February, discovering more of the shopworn shibboleths that have come to characterize an unthinking prescriptivism.

One example was Mr. Obama’s description of Sen. Joe Biden as “one of the finest public servants that has served this country.” The ill-advised complaint was that that must be reserved for inanimate objects or nonhuman beings, and that who must always be used for persons. And yet, earlier today at divine service, I heard Bishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer language — a fetish for many language purists — repeated thus: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord [emphasis added].”

There have also been complaints that Mr. Obama’s use of first-person pronouns has been excessive. Mark Liberman looked into this at Language Log, discovering by making an actual count of pronouns in specimen texts, that Mr. Obama has used first-person pronouns less frequently than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton on comparable occasions. His follow-ups do not fill one with confidence that writers of columns and op-ed pieces take much trouble to confirm their assertions.

One the plus side, The Grammar Vandal diagrams one of the president’s extended sentences and finds it sound.

I am not an apologist for Mr. Obama. We have had presidents who could speak intelligibly, such as John F. Kennedy, and write exemplary English prose, such as Ulysses S. Grant. And we have had presidents who could not, such as the egregious Warren G. Harding. It seems to me that it would be better for the Republic if we focused our attention a little more on how presidents govern than on how they speak.