June 18, 2004

A CNN-ism?

This afternoon, CNN's front page ran a composite picture of Paul Johnson, under the headline "Captors behead U.S. hostage Johnson", with the following paragraph below the picture:

Al Qaeda militants beheaded an American hostage, posting on an Islamist Web site today three photographs of the head and body of Paul Johnson, who was abducted in Saudi Arabia six days ago. President Bush reacted to the killing by saying, "America will not be intimidated by these kind of extremist thugs."

The presidential quote, as given, exemplifies the non-standard use of singular kind with plural these that I discussed a few days ago.

In contrast, Reuters quoted Bush as saying "America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs." So did ABC News, The Guardian, The Australian, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others. This is also the version found in the official White House transcript.

So far, I haven't been able to find an audio clip of the presidential statement. NPR gives the beginning, but cuts it off before the phrase in question.

In the absence of a clip to check, two alternative explanations present themselves:

(1) Bush said "these kinds of extremist thugs" and CNN's sub-head writer blew the quote, whether by hearing it wrong or by copying another story incorrectly;

(2) Bush said "these kind of extremist thugs" and all the other reporters cleaned up the quote.

Given how unwilling the press corps has traditionally been to give W the benefit of the linguistic doubt, I'm going with (1) for now.

Note that in neither case is there any real linguistic blame to be assigned. The sequence "these kind of" has 225,000 hits on Google. It's still a minority taste: "these kinds of" has 2,080,000 hits, or about 9 times as many. But it's the sentiment that matters most, not the formality of its extemporaneous expression.

[Update: I found the video of Bush's reaction (recorded at the airport in Seattle) on CNN. It's clear that he says "these kinds of extremist thugs", just as all the sources except CNN's web site had it.

As I wrote in my earlier discussion

You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage. It's even easier if the critics use anecdotes based on the perceptions and verbal memories of equally hostile listeners.

Here we have a case where Bush was quoted by a national press source using a non-standard way of talking, but the "error" turns out to have been made by the journalist rather than the politician. ]

[Update 6/19/2004: Slate's Today's Papers gives the "these kind" variant of the quote: will we see it appearing as a Bushism? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 18, 2004 06:18 PM