January 23, 2006

A rejoinder from our president

I am grateful to President George W. Bush for pointing out to me that there have been other occasions when he used impermissibly antecedentless reflexive pronouns. One widely quoted remark of his was: "when I'm talking about myself and when he's talking about myself, all of us are talking about me." The second myself clearly has no antecedent, as he notes in his letter to myself.

However, this does not mean that we are dealing with anything other than sporadic slips. The president fully agrees with me that antecedentless reflexives are indeed ungrammatical in his dialect, and he lends no support at all to the contrary opinions of Chris Culy. So I hope that clears up the matter of the reflexives.

President Bush does, however, take issue with the suggestion that "Is our children learning?" is ungrammatical, and he makes a good point. First, this sentence gets more that 62,000 Google hits now, and frequency should count for something in linguistic inquiry. But second, as he himself pointed out in a lecture given at the Radio-Television Correspondents Association 57th Annual Dinner, the example has been misanalyzed:

Then there is my most famous statement: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning." Let us analyze that sentence for a moment. If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb "is" should have been the plural "are." But if you read it closely, you'll see I'm using the intransitive plural subjunctive tense. So the word "is" are correct.

As always, Language Log are happy to correct the record on those rare occasions where some grammatical subtlety slips past ourselves. Particularly when the wronged party is the leader of the free world and could quite easily blow Language Log Plaza straight to hell with a cruise missile.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 23, 2006 01:20 PM