Says Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker (October 24, 2005, p. 90), apropos of the new political TV drama "Commander in Chief", with Geena Davis playing the first woman president of the USA:
No one seems to be able to talk about "Commander in Chief" without also talking about Hillary Clinton, whose name is invariably followed these days by the phrase "who may or may not run for president in 2008."
But you don't have to just swallow this. Language Log is here to check such things for you. Journalists seem to love to make unchecked (but readily checkable) claims about the linguistic record in order to back up their unverified intuitions about what is on the public mind. Here are the facts:
|Word string||Google hits|
|"Hillary Clinton, who may or may not run for president in 2008"||0|
|"Hillary Clinton, who may or may not run for president"||0|
|"Hillary Clinton, who may or may not run"||0|
|"Hillary Clinton, who may or may not"||1|
And that single hit for "Hillary Clinton, who may or may not" at the end there is not about running in 2008. It's from a 1998 article about Cherie Booth (wife of UK prime minister Tony Blair) wearing a necklace said to contain magic crystals barring harmful computer rays and stress. The sentence runs: "One of Booth's few fellow-travellers is Hillary Clinton, who may or may not have suggested the stress-busting necklace but who has reputedly sought the aid of spiritual guides, summoning up Eleanor Roosevelt from the White House ectoplasm." So it would appear that absolutely no one has ever followed the words "Hillary Clinton" with the words "who may or may not run for president in 2008" in any forum that Google can find. The statement is hugely, monstrously, grotesquely false.
It is not that this is some big factual issue. There are plenty of hits for phrases like "Hillary Clinton, who may be a presidential candidate in 2008" and "Hillary Clinton, who may look to become the first female president in American history" and "Hillary Clinton who may still enter the fray." What I am puzzled by is the practice of needlessly making true claims about nonlinguistic matters into false claims about linguistic material. Nancy Franklin could have said that no one seems to be able to talk about "Commander in Chief" without also talking about Hillary Clinton, who is constantly being referred to these days as a possible contender for president in 2008.
We have seen this before. I commented last year on a claim by Mark Bauerlein that "references to ‘right-wing think tanks’ are always accompanied by the qualifier ‘well-funded‘." The claim is not just false but absurdly far from the truth: hardly any references to right-wing think tanks are accompanied by that phrase. I said there that I wished journalists wouldn't "spoil their presentations ... by including ridiculous claims about public use of language that can be falsified in seconds." But the practice goes on. I have no idea why.Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 23, 2005 07:59 PM