February 01, 2007

Biden's comma

Vying for political buzz with the president's missing -ic has been Senator Joseph Biden's missing comma. Well, really, the issue is Biden's undiplomatic comments about some of his fellow Democrats (Jason Horowitz, "Biden Unbound: Lays Into Clinton, Obama, Edwards", New York Observer, 2/5/2007). But hang in there, we'll get to the comma before long.

The biggest fuss has been over what the Observer quoted Senator Biden as saying about Senator Barack Obama:

Mr. Biden is equally skeptical—albeit in a slightly more backhanded way—about Mr. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

This prompted Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo to tag Biden as a serial stereotyper, if not an out-and-out bigot:

You've probably already noticed this quote from Sen. Biden (D-DE) in which he manages to call either all previous African-American presidential candidates or possibly all other African-Americans in public life dumb, ugly and corrupt. The actual quote has him calling Sen. Obama (D-IL) "you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

It's only fair to remember that only months ago we had Sen. Biden saying Indian-Americans were a veritable tribe of 7/11 owners. "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent."

The only thing more ridiculous than the 7-Eleven was his subsequent explanation in which he claimed that he was celebrating the fact that Indian-Americans were no longer ghettoized into high-paid, high-education jobs in engineering, computer science and medicine but were expanding into convenience store entrepreneurship. Sort of breaking through the glass floor, you might say.

Later discussion at TPM brought up the suggestion that the Observer's Horowitz had omitted a comma, which would significantly change the meaning (and the degree of offensiveness) of Biden's comment. Josh quotes a note from a reader:

...what if the Observer punctuated casually? That is, what if there is supposed to be a comma before 'who,' making it a non-restrictive relative clause:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Thus he would mean Obama is both

a). the first mainstream African-American candidate for president

b). articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy

but not necessarily that he is the first African-American candidate to have these properties. This would be patronizing and stupid, but not the breathtakingly offensive sentiment suggested when the comma isn't there.

In speech, it's not always clear whether a speaker is using a restrictive or a non-restrictive relative, but in writing you have to decide which was meant, and use a comma or not. What if the Observer chose poorly?

Well, after analyzing the brief audio clips posted by Josh Benson on the Observer's blog here, I'll offer the opinion that the Observer didn't choose poorly, they chose dishonestly. At least, the quote as they printed it, though it reproduced Biden's words in the order in which he said them (ignoring some false starts whose removal was normal and expected), was objectively dishonest as a representation of his meaning. And Josh's reader is right -- in this case, punctuation matters.

Here's the exchange in question (this is as much of the context as the clip provides):

Here's my transcript. After each of Biden's phrases, I've indicated in square brackets the amount of time before his next utterance starts.

Biden: ... real story. [1.278]
Horowitz: Uh huh.
Biden: I mean you got the first [0.756]
sorta [0.688]
mainstream African-American [1.241]
Horowitz: Yeah.
Biden: who is articulate and bright [0.178]
and [0.700]
and- and clean, and a nice lookin guy. [0.560]
Horowitz: Mm.
Biden: I mean, it's- that's a story-board, man!
Horowitz: Yeah.

Between "African-American" and "who", we've got not only one and a quarter seconds of wall clock time (more than twice the amount of time separating what the Observer transcribes as two sentences), but also Horowitz's "yeah", set off cleanly by silence on both sides.

In addition, Biden's rising intonation on "African-American" seems incompatible to me with what Josh's correspondent calls a "restrictive relative clause" as opposed to a "non-restrictive" one. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language prefers the terms "integrated" vs. "supplementary" relative clause, but the intended distinction is clear under whatever description.)

Josh doesn't think this matters, politically:

My sense is that this is only partially exculpating at best. Even with the comma it's really condescending bordering on racist. And it would still probably mean that Biden's mouth presents a clear and present danger to Democratic electoral prospects no matter what he meant. Ending his candidacy wouldn't be preemption, just legitimate self-defense.

I agree with his political point.

But there's also a linguistic and a journalistic point here. Senator Biden's word sequence corresponds to two different sentences with very different meanings, and the Observer misquoted him by omitting the comma.

I don't know whether the Observer misrepresented Biden's statement out of ignorance, carelessness, or malice. Maybe Horowitz and his editors don't know the difference between the two types of relative clauses; maybe they didn't bother to think about the difference in interpretation in this case; or maybe they know the difference in general, thought about it in this case, and decided that it would make a better story to present the wrong version.

Whatever the explanation, this isn't the first time that a reporter has been accused of using sloppy quoting to improve a story. See for example my post "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005. As the links in that post indicate, inaccurate quoting -- sometimes just out of laziness, but often out of a desire to make a better story -- is the journalistic rule, not the exception.

This also isn't the first time that Jason Horowitz's linguistic carelessness has come up. For background, I refer you to "The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO", 3/22/2006. As in the case of Dean Roderick P. Hart of the University of Texas, I'm going to avoid speculation about an individual's history and motivations. But I observed in that case that my profession has apparently failed in its duty to educate the nation's professors -- I'll add today that we haven't done any better with the journalists.

[Update -- Someone at The Economist blogged about this last night, and came to the same conclusion that I did: "Joe Biden: moron racist, or poorly transcribed?", 1/31/2007.

For added value, though, the Econo-blogger addresses the weaker complaint that "that Mr Biden is racist in the mild, unconscious way that causes people to use words like "articulate" and "clean" when describing a black senator, when it would never occur to most people to use them to describe a white senator", and refutes it by finding recent journalism or punditry in which those same words are used to describe white senators.

The E-blogger also observes that the NYT's reaction was to "[amplify] the misquote hugely rather than checking its facts" (Adam Nagourney, " Biden unwraps '08 bid with an Oops!", 1/31/2007).

I'm ashamed to say that I didn't even know that The Economist had a blog -- and it started way back on October 30, 2006! It's called "Democracy in America", and it looks to be well worth reading regularly.

It's slightly odd to combine the informal first-person style of blogging with The Economist's traditional anonymous (not even pseudonymous) authorship, but I guess I'll get used to it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 1, 2007 09:51 AM