October 19, 2005

And they're just as ignorant as it used to do

Barbara Partee notes an odd sentence on the front page of today's NYT, in an article by Eric Lipton entitled "Number Overstated for Storm Evacuees in Hotels":

"FEMA still does not know any more about what it was doing last week than it was a month ago," Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said. "It is still, as far as I am concerned, an incompetent agency."

Barbara writes:

I had to backtrack twice on this sentence -- first I thought there was just a temporal peculiarity involving a 'relative' use of what I thought was an 'absolute' deictic, "last week" -- but to get the reading I thought they were after (if "last week" could be used relatively) it would have to say "than they did a month ago", not "than it was a month ago". And after realizing that they hadn't said that, I had to backtrack again and finally concluded there was no possible parse for the sentence and it must be ungrammatical, although I don't think it 'felt' ungrammatical to me, just "huh?". I suppose they meant what I first thought they must have said. This seems similar to modifier-induced number agreement errors, making a matrix verb agree with the 'closest' NP instead of its subject, as in " [the cause of layoffs such as these] are not the taxes" (from Francis 1986, cited in this paper: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~tls/2001tls/Pfau.pdf )  Only this time it is a VP-deletion error, incorrectly targeting the nearest preceding VP rather than that of the intended, matrix, clause. Is that a well-known processing error too? I never noticed such a thing before.

I think that Barbara's analysis is exactly right. An example of "agreement with closer" was widely discussed a few days ago, when Harriet Miers said

The wisdom of those who drafted our Constitution and conceived our nation as functioning with three strong and independent branches have proven [1330 msec. pause] truly remarkable.

It's not clear whether she was misled by the string-wise closest plural noun phrase "three strong and independent branches", or by the semantically salient "those who drafted our Constitution", but one of these intervening plurals diverted her attention from the actual subject "the wisdom of those who ... branches". The extra-long pause after "have proven" shows, I argued, that she recognized the problem as soon as the words were spoken.

As Barbara suggests, if we change Representative Obey's "than it was" to "than it did" then his verb-phrase ellipsis makes sense:

FEMA still does not know any more about what it was doing last week than it did a month ago.

Alternatively, if his first clause had been constructed a bit differently, his second clause would have worked out:

FEMA still was not any more competent in its activities last week than it was a month ago.

One caveat: Miers' error was documented in the official recording of her remarks, while so far we only have Lipton's word for what Rep. Obey said. Judging by my previous investigations of NYT quote transcription, there's roughly a 70% chance that any particular word of this quote is accurate. I assume that Obey's quote came from an interview with Lipton, so we'll never know the truth.

And I have a different sort of complaint in this case. Even if this is really what Obey said and not just what Lipton transcribed or copied from his notes, why not give the guy a break and use a different quote, or give him a chance to fix it? Surely the story here is FEMA's administrative confusion, not Obey's speech error.

The NYT's code of ethics says that

If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased.

Unless there's a subtext to undermine the reputation of the source quoted -- as there clearly is in many quotations of "Bushisms" -- why feature a politician's slip of the tongue in the third paragraph of a front-page story that's about another topic entirely?

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 19, 2005 04:26 AM