January 26, 2005

Now about those facts ...

Early in the President's press conference this morning, G.W.B. was asked about a case of a Jordanian man who was jailed for speaking out against his government. The reporter's question was: will G.W.B. publically condemn this man's punishment as anti-democratic, even though it was performed by an ally of the United States? Claiming not to know anything about the case, G.W.B. said:

You're asking me to comment on something (that) I do not know the facts.

The "that" is in parentheses because he repeated this same sentence twice, once with the "that" and once without. (Well, more or less the same sentence; he may have said "don't" instead of "do not" one of those times, and the main clause of the sentence may have been worded a tiny bit differently each time.)

Is this a case of hypercorrective avoidance of a sentence-final preposition (in this case, about)? As a faux-bubba speaker (Geoff Nunberg's term), G.W.B. is unlikely to say "... something about which I do not know the facts", but clearly (to me, at least), he finds something wrong with "... something (that) I do not know the facts about"; my interpretation of the situation is that G.W.B. avoided the problem by just not pronouncing the (otherwise obligatory) preposition.

Update: Andy Grover writes:

I saw your post on the language log concerning this statement:

"You're asking me to comment on something (that) I do not know the facts."

I think it's possible that it's not a preposition missing at the end, but that Bush started one sentence but did not finish it, and then "I do not know the facts" is a second attempt by him at expressing his thought.

That certainly is a possibility. Finding myself with some free time at the espresso machine here at Language Log Plaza, I went to www.whitehouse.gov and re-listened to the relevant portion of the press conference. Here are the sound clips.

  1. (link) You're asking me to speak about a case that I don't know the facts.
  2. (link) Again: I don't know the facts, Terry; you're asking me to comment on something I do not know the facts. Perhaps you're accurate in your description of the facts.

Just speaking as a speaker of (what I think is) the same language, the intonation of the first clip is inconsistent with Andy's hypothesis. However, I'm less sure about the second clip now (which is why I gave it more of the surrounding context). It's entirely possible that the relevant bit of the quote should be punctuated thusly: you're asking me to comment on something; I do not know the facts -- in which case, Andy's hypothesis would be right.

Now back to my espresso ... mmm, dee-lish.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at January 26, 2005 10:51 AM