October 05, 2005

Stickler Shock

Bruce Reed has an amusing piece in Slate entitled "stickler shock", musing on the fact that both Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice nominee Harriet Miers are known to serve as self-appointed copy editors for texts that cross their desks. Reed adds, as an update:

Former Supreme Court clerk, future Supreme Court Justice, and fluent English speaker Robert Gordon reminds me that in her maiden speech yesterday, Miers got off to a rocky start in her bid to become Associate Grammarian:

"The wisdom of those who drafted our Constitution and conceived our nation as functioning with three strong and independent branches have proven truly remarkable."

Chief Justice Roberts might allow the controversial use of "proven" in place of the older and more established "proved," but any stickler who says "The wisdom ... have" listens too much to George W. Bush.

That's indeed what the NYT transcript says she says, and the White House transcript says the same thing, but I like to check these things, so I inspected a recording of the event, and this time, the transcripts are correct: that's what she said.

However, I noticed two other relevant things about the recording. First, the crucial verbal group "have proven" is followed by a long pauses:

... independent branches [600 msec] have proven [1330 msec] truly remarkable.

Second, Ms. Miers' speech was not otherwise characterized by pauses of similar length. In fact, there's a striking difference in this respect between her and President Bush, as can immediately be seen in this low-res picture of the waveform of the entire appearance -- it's easy to see where Bush stops and Miers starts, because his portion includes so much more open air between phrases.

I conclude from this that when Ms. Miers used "have" in place of "has", she had momentarily lost the thread of sense in the speech she was reading, and was misled in the usual way by the plural noun phrase ("three strong and independent branches") intervening between her subject ("the wisdom") and her verb phrase ("has/have proven"). This sort of thing could happen to any of us. In fact, I caught myself doing something similar in this morning's lecture.

Reed's remark about "listens too much to George W. Bush" seems to me like a cheap shot, since I don't believe that there's any good evidence that President Bush is significantly more prone to this sort of error than the rest of us are.

[Update: more here.

[Slate link via Ben Zimmer]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 5, 2005 04:31 PM