August 31, 2005

Leading questions and frickin' cooks

According to a CNN story about New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin's frustration over lack of coordination,

"There is way too many fricking ... cooks in the kitchen," Nagin said in a phone interview with WAPT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, fuming over what he said were scuttled plans to plug a 200-yard breach near the 17th Street Canal, allowing Lake Pontchartrain to spill into the central business district.

Arnold Zwicky, who told me about this by email, wondered about three editorial differences between this textual version and what he remembered from hearing the clip on CNN TV news, which he rendered as

There's way too many frickin' -- excuse me -- cooks in the kitchen.

CNN has the clip on their website (if the link doesn't work, try going through the story linked above), so I was able to verify that Arnold's memory is exact. I've extracted just the cited phrase here.

The three differences, obviously, are

  • un-contraction of there's to there is
  • standardized spelling of frickin' as fricking
  • elision of "excuse me"

With respect to the first and second points, Arnold was curious about whether his memory was wrong, or perhaps the Mayor was using informal language in a formal register. But Arnold's memory was exact, and I suppose that the partial formalization of the quote comes from a CNN copy editor, or an assumption by the writer that these are the right ways to render such things.

Opinions differ about how to transcribe informal speech. I tend to agree with the practice of writing -ing rather than -in', as Mark Twain did, though "fricking" in particular seems kind of silly. I feel that removing contractions is a bad idea, since in conversational English the lack of contraction in cases like this often indicates either some sort of emphasis or some extra dose of formality. In this case, the un-contraction is especially odd, since the singular is itself is non-standard. Still, Mark Twain himself did this, as in his maxim "The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right".

Eliding the excuse serves to make a punchier quote, but a bigger issue is the extent to which the quote itself was set up by the interviewer. Here's the whole context:

Ray Nagin: Uh I'm a very impatient person, I would love to see those uh resources come a lot quicker, and I would love to see some of the chiefs that keep showing up down here to kind of stay away for a minute and let us get to- these implementations uh phases adequately done.
Interviewer: Are- are there too many cooks in the kitchen, is that what I hear you saying, Mr. Mayor?
Ray Nagin: Absolutely, in my opinion, there's way too many frickin' -- excuse me -- cooks in the kitchen, we had this implementation plan going, they should have done these uh sandbagging operations first thing this morning, and it didn't get done and I- quite frankly I'm very upset about it.

This is the sort of ritual exchange that Rasheed Wallace lampooned here. It serves its purpose -- here we are, writing about Mayor Nagin's remarks, which took on a force that they would have lacked if the quote were just "I would love to see some of the chiefs that keep showing up down here to kind of stay away for a minute" or something similar.

Nagin apparently had good reason to be upset, and the reported helped him to express his anger in a way that got people's attention:

The National Weather Service reported a breach along the Industrial Canal levee at Tennessee Street, in southeast New Orleans, on Monday. Local reports later said the levee was overtopped, not breached, but the Corps of Engineers reported it Tuesday afternoon as having been breached.

But Nagin said a repair attempt was supposed to have been made Tuesday.

According to the mayor, Black Hawk helicopters were scheduled to pick up and drop massive 3,000-pound sandbags in the 17th Street Canal breach, but were diverted on rescue missions. Nagin said neglecting to fix the problem has set the city behind by at least a month.

"I had laid out like an eight-week to ten-week timeline where we could get the city back in semblance of order. It's probably been pushed back another four weeks as a result of this," Nagin said.

"That four weeks is going to stop all commerce in the city of New Orleans. It also impacts the nation, because no domestic oil production will happen in southeast Louisiana."

So it's easy to sympathize with what the reporter did: the conventions of the genre force him to make the point by asking the mayor a leading question, rather than expressing an opinion in his own voice.

[Update: Arnold Zwicky emailed

small additional subtlety on "there's" vs. "there is": "there is" + NPpl is indeed nonstandard (and somewhat more common in the south and south midlands than elsewhere, i believe -- i'm away from my sources on this today), but "there's" + NPpl should really be characterized, in current english, as merely informal/colloquial, rather than nonstandard. millions of people (like me) who wouldn't use "there is two people at the door" are entirely happy with "there's two people at the door". so the two versions differ not only in emphasis and/or formality, but also (for many of us) in standardness.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 31, 2005 02:04 PM