October 06, 2004

Decisiveness and clause structure

I think Mark's series of linguistic analyses of the first presidential candidates' debate (see them here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) has been really important, and I'm still pondering on some of the issues. I have spent a particularly long time on the question (raised in this one) of what Kathleen Hall Jamieson (director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania) could possibly have meant when she said (if she indeed said), "The language of decisiveness is subject, verb, object, end sentence." Is there any sense that we can suck out of this apparently loopy remark?

Mark probed a little in a scripted speech of Bush's, and found only about 5.6% of the sentences were simple Subject + Verb + Object clauses with no embellishment at all. But it seems intuitively obvious that Professor Jamieson couldn't have meant this anyway: she would not have intended to claim that you will sound decisive if you say This makes sense but not if you say This is sensible. (Sensible is an adjective, so it isn't an object.) Jamieson must at least have been thinking we could allow Subject, Verb, other stuff — object if the verb is transitive or otherwise whatever complement is appropriate. But that can't be right either. Consider Winston Churchill's stirring and famous words about the Royal Air Force fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain:

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

That has a fronted negative adjunct and inversion of the subject and auxiliary. Surely Professor Jamieson cannot have meant that because of it Churchill missed sounding decisive because the subject failed to precede the verb. Examples could easily be multiplied: if A crucial choice lies before us sounds decisive (it has Subject + Verb order), would anyone really say that Before us lies a crucial choice does not, just because it inverts things and has the subject last? Surely such style differences (the topic of Chapter 16 in The Cambridge Grammar, if you want to reflect more on this) do not convey a difference in whether you sound like decisive leader.

I think the only potentially salvageable part of the Jamieson claim is that long sequences of supplements and appositives should be avoided because they might make you sound dithery. She is reported as saying that people fail to sound decisive if they "speak in sentences that contain parenthetical phrases" or if they "add a series of illustrative examples before they end the sentences." But after some study of the transcript of the first presidential debate, I don't actually think that avoiding such sequences characterizes either decisive-sounding speech or George W. Bush's style.

For a start, there is nothing indecisive-sounding about this sentence of Kerry's, with its series of illustrative examples and its succession of parenthetical phrases:

I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence, by going after the financing more authoritatively, by doing what we need to do to rebuild the alliances, by reaching out to the Muslim world, which the president has almost not done, and beginning to isolate the radical Islamic Muslims, not have them isolate the United States of America.

Yet there can be plenty of indecisiveness in a stream of fairly simple clauses if they are all over the map in terms of subject matter. The opening question Jim Lehrer asked of President Bush in the first debate was this:

Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

This was a clear allusion to the suggestion Dick Cheney publicly made, which sounded to a lot of people like a claim that a Kerry victory would cause new and devastating terrorist attacks (I have commented elsewh ere on how difficult it is to say whether Cheney really committed himself to that claim or not). Lehrer wanted Bush to get off the fence concerning whether it was part of the Republican position that just by not being Bush, a President Kerry would draw down hijacked airliners on us like a magnet. The challenge to be parried, in other words, was one about whether the Republicans hadn't been overstating the dangers of a Kerry presidency.

Bush responded with numerous short, Jamieson-compliant clauses in standard word order. But he never actually answered the question, or came close (he may not have intended to, of course), and what was more alarming was that his sentences were all over the map semantically, wildly off the topic and getting progressively more so. He made the following claims, among others, in this order, and in these words (though I omit linking remarks):

  • I don't believe it's going to happen.
  • I've shown the American people I know how to lead.
  • I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've mad e.
  • People out there listening know what I believe.
  • This nation of ours has got a solemn duty to defeat this ideology of hate.
  • We have a duty to protect our children and grandchildren.
  • Ten million citizens [in Afghanistan] have registered to vote.
  • They're given a chance to be free.
  • They [the Afghans] will show up at the polls.
  • Forty-one percent of those 10 million [Afghans who have registered to vote] are women.
  • It's a phenomenal statistic.

Hold on a minute. Lehrer's question was basically "Will Kerry's election cause terrorist attacks in America?" How did we get from there to the claim "The percentage of women among registered Afghan voters, at 41%, is surprisingly high"? I don't really know. You can try to reconstruct it yourself by reading the transcript. But although many of the sentences were nice short Subject-Verb-Object canonical clauses (e.g., "an enemy realizes the stakes"), my reading of the whole answer is that we're looking at a man in a panic who has no idea what to say to the question. He has been taught a whole slew of tough-sounding clauses to reiterate, but can think of nothing to do but hurl them around at random. He demonstrates, with his succession of mostly Jamieson-compliant clauses, real intellectual weakness and indecisiveness when faced with a challenging question.

You might allege that I have amplified this by omitting connecting passages that made the logic clear. By all means read the raw original and make up your own mind. But to some extent it does Bush a favor to leave stuff out. Some of what I left out was ungrammatical (e.g., *That's how best it is to keep the peace). And there were transitions like this:

This nation of ours has got a solemn duty to defeat this ideology of hate. And that's what they are.

What? What is what who are? What are they? Ideologists? Haters? Baffled, we move on to see if it gets any clearer:

This is a group of killers who will not only kill here, but kill children in Russia, that'll attack unmercifully in Iraq, hoping to shake our will.

Quite apart from the content (no single "group of killers" has been involved in all of the atrocities mentioned), this rambling, flailing sentence has — under the Jamieson doctrine — a syntactically very loose sequence of parts. This is the subject, and the predicate has the form is + noun phrase. That noun phrase is about killers, and a series of loosely connected modifiers follows:

a group of killers who will not only [verb phrase #1] but [verb phrase #2]... that will [verb phrase #3]... [subjectless gerund-participial clause adjunct]...

Cut it any way you like, this is decisively not Jamieson-compliant syntax.

Neither of the current stereotypes about styles of speech seems to be true: Kerry does not engage in long-winded unstructured rambling; Bush sometimes does; and neither limits himself to the sort of syntax alluded to by Jamieson, even if we interpret her with maximum charity. But what is true is that you can ask Bush a question about overstatements in Republican campaign rhetoric and he will ramble off into an answer that starts talking about the gender balance in Afghanistan's electoral roll. That doesn't look like decisive clarity incisive focus to me.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 6, 2004 01:32 PM