March 28, 2006

Dangerously incompetence

From the Boston Sunday Globe last weekend, March 19 (sorry, I'm behind with the blogging), on page A8, from Nina J. Easton's politics column "The Briefing", about the Democrats deciding to start a new campaign of using the phrase "dangerous incompetence" when talking about President Bush:

The one-time amateur boxer [Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid] was eager to give the incompetence label "an edge," said a Reid aide, Jim Manley, and "dangerous" was the winning adverb...

Winning adverb? It's an adjective! What the hell is going on in a culture where someone can hold a job as either a Senate aide or a Globe columnist (we can't tell which from the above quote, because we don't know whether Nina Easton was quoting or paraphrasing) without knowing the basic lexical categories of grammar from one another, and a man can get a reputation as a business writer when he can't do fractions? Is it just us at Language Log Plaza who think this is almost unbelievable?

(Mark my words, some harrumphing old fool is going to email me now about how I should have said "Is it just we at Language Log Plaza..." That would certainly be a possibility in formal style. I'm chatting with you now in informal Standard English. Informal isn't wrong. Informal is friendly. And it isn't non-standard. "I don't got none" is non-standard. "Is it just us" is normal. Trust me. Why would I lie to you about these things when I could easily have written "Is it just we" if I had decided to go formal? I didn't go formal because you're a Language Log reader, so you're like family.)

Incidentally, the adverb is the word that Senator Debbie Stabenow put up beside her on a big red sign saying "DANGEROUSLY INCOMPETENT" during a speech in the Senate after the campaign was launched. Adverbs can be used as pre-head modifiers in adjective phrases, you see. She got that right. Only she made the mistake of wearing a bright red suit in just the same color as the sign, so when she stood beside it and the Republicans saw what it looked like... Oh, dear, the Democrats just can't do this image and media stuff, can they? And having George Lakoff advise them won't help.

They should hire me to lead them. "Listen," I'd say: "Number one, learn to distinguish adjectives from adverbs. Just get it right. Noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition... learn those for a start. Don't be like Jon Stewart. Don't make us look ignorant. And number two, if you're going to illustrate a speech by displaying a big sign saying ‘DANGEROUSLY INCOMPETENT’ or ‘DIMWITTED GOOFBALL’ or ‘INTERN GROPER’ or ‘MENDACIOUS PONTIFICATING OLD WINDBAG’ or anything, that's fine, but just don't get photographed beside it, OK? Now let's go fight for a better future for America. And hey: be careful out there."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 28, 2006 09:52 AM