October 15, 2004

Ceci n'est pas un Bushism

Since I dedicated so much time picking apart Kerry's pronunciation of paraplegic and quadraplegic in the second debate, I thought I'd fairly balance things out by picking apart something Bush said during the third debate last night.

Note: this is not (necessarily) a Bushism. If you've come for that sort of thing, this is the wrong place. This is Language Log, after all.

I have not yet received my complimentary copy of The Cambridge Grammar -- I had thought it was standard issue to all recent Linguistics PhD recipients -- and, keep in mind, I'm not a syntactician (but I have been known to play one in the past). So I may have much of this wrong, and I welcome corrections of my premises (and reasoning).

Right at the beginning of his closing statement, Bush found himself in the (I think very unpleasant) position of having to form a notoriously difficult type of noun phrase (NP). The ordered contents of this kind of NP are [ Det N1 of N2 and pro ], where Det is a determiner (the, a, etc.), N1 and N2 are nouns, and pro is a pronoun.

In the Oval Office, there's a painting by
named -- by Tom Lee.

What's difficult about this type of NP is that (I think) most of us find it difficult to judge what the correct form of -- not to mention order between -- N2 and pro should be. We have no problem with identical NPs without pro, and no problem with identical NPs without N2 (Asterisks indicate ungrammaticality; your judgments may vary):

  1. a friend of Laura's / *a friend of Laura
  2. a friend of mine / *a friend of me

UPDATE 1, 10/15/2004, 10:00 PDT

Mark writes to point out that "some people might object to" my judgment on a friend of Laura:

I guess I share the judgment that with a single first name, and out of context, "friend of Laura's" is preferred. But remember "friend of Bill", abbreviated as "FOB" during the Clinton years?

Good point. I agree. Mark continues:

Because of the way that Google works, it's hard to get reliable counts, but checking a couple of pages by hand I get
"friend of Biff" 8
"friend of Biff's" 11
(and then other things like "friend of Biff Henderson's"...)
suggesting that the preference is a marginal one at best, far from meriting a star on the less-favored outcome.

And with full names, I think things go the other way:

Google gives us
"friend of Abraham Lincoln" 651 (- 40 = 611)
"friend of Abraham Lincoln's" 40

"friend of Thomas Jefferson" 452 (- 10 = 442)
"friend of Thomas Jefferson's" 10

See also UPDATE 2 just below.

Put the two together, though, and they all sound neither good nor bad, just odd in a strange, unfixable way. (The question mark on the last one is because I find it more strange than the rest -- but I don't know why.)

  1. a friend of Laura and mine
  2. a friend of Laura's and mine
  3. a friend of Laura and me
  4. ? a friend of Laura's and me

UPDATE 2, 10/15/2004, 10:00 PDT

Mark's message (cited above) concludes:

This doesn't detract from your observation that the construction
"friend of Laura and mine"
mixed types in the conjunction.

I didn't (explicitly) note this observation, but then again, I was really tired when I posted this. Looking back at the NPs above, I now see that (1) -- the wording Bush used -- is just as strange to me as (4). So, the above should read:

  1. ? a friend of Laura and mine
  2. a friend of Laura's and mine
  3. a friend of Laura and me
  4. ? a friend of Laura's and me

This is in line with Mark's observation (which he kindly credits to me).

Firm judgments about the form of pronouns are elusive in all kinds of conjoined NPs -- I know that Joe Emonds once wrote about this ("Grammatically deviant prestige constructions", in A Festschrift for Sol Saporta, M. Brame, H. Contreras, and F. Newmeyer (eds.), Noit Amrofer Press, 1986). Steven Pinker also writes about it in The Language Instinct (citing the Emonds paper).

OK, if this is not intended to be a Bushism-of-the-debate or something like that, why am I bringing it up? Only to suggest that this is a piece of evidence that Bush probably wasn't as well-prepared for this closing statement as he has been (accused of being) for the other two. The complete lameness of the painting reference, the stumbling for the completely irrelevant name of his and Laura's great friend the painter, the awkward NP -- all in the very first sentence of his closing statement? Why? Are Rove, Cheney et al. trying to deflect the charge that Bush was wired?

OK, the awkward NP thing is too subtle, I admit -- unless: they've noticed the influence of blogging in the media, and in the hopes that Language Log would bring this up ...

Nah. Too complicated, and it's late. Besides, W gave us the answer himself, earlier in the debate:

I tell the people on the campaign trail, when I asked Laura to marry me, she said, "Fine, just so long as I never have to give a speech." I said, "OK, you've got a deal." Fortunately, she didn't hold me to that deal. And she's out campaigning along with our girls. And she speaks English a lot better than I do. I think people understand what she's saying.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 15, 2004 03:03 AM