April 19, 2006

McClellan's mangled sentences: where are they?

Michael Wolff's recent Vanity Fair article about the just-removed White House ex-spokesman Scott McClellan insists that his performances have been characterized by "mangled sentences, flat-footed evasions, and genial befuddlement." I'm a syntactician, not a detective or a clinical psychologist, so I concentrated on the first charge: I turned to the article looking for an example or two of these alleged "mangled sentences". I read the article with care, and found several other references to language, but not a single example that suggested any sentence-mangling at all, nothing even close. What McClellan says is dull and hackneyed; but all of it that Wolff quotes seems to be grammatical.

Why do people say these things about language that they simply can't back up? Another case of it's all grammar, I suppose. McClellan talks; that's language; the press representatives don't believe him or don't understand him; therefore his grammar must be to blame. Whatever grammar is.

Of course, it is possible that McClellan does commit major sentence mayhem in spontaneous speech (if you never do, then you get to cast the first stone). I'm just wondering why Wolff was unable or unwilling to quote even a single example of syntactic mutilation, in an article where supposed linguistic ineptitude was one of the major themes.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 19, 2006 07:46 PM