February 16, 2007

Grammatical parables at the Pentagon

In yesterday's Pentagon Roundtable (transcript here), with SecDef Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, the first question that came up was about the Iranian role in supplying EFPs to Iraqi insurgents. Or rather, about apparent differences between an anonymous briefing in Baghdad on Sunday, which blamed the "highest levels" of the Iranian government, and what General Pace was quoted as saying in Jakarta on Tuesday, which was that this ""does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this."

Dr. Gates tried to clear things up with an allusion to scripture: he evoked Strunk and White.

And to the degree I had any involvement it was to say, I want factual statements; I don't want adjectives; I don't want adverbs; I want declarative sentences; and make it exactly clear what we know and what we don't know.

Dr. Gates' opposition to adjectives and adverbs is a reference to rule #4: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." Ironically, three of his next nine words are adjectives and adverbs: "I want declarative sentences; and make it exactly clear what we know ..." And the clause just after his demand for declarative sentences is itself in the imperative rather than the declarative mood.

Tony Snow's press briefing, which took place almost simultaneously at the White House, also relied on adjectives and adverbs from the start:

Q: Have you been able to reconstruct the transcript of the briefing in Baghdad on Sunday?
Mr. Snow: No, but I think the general purpose of the briefing in Baghdad was to outline Iranian activities in terms of supplying weaponry, or weaponry that had made its way from Iran into Iraq that had been used to kill coalition forces, among others.
One of the most prominent parts of the briefing were the EFPs, the explosively formed projectiles, which are a new form of IED. And so that's basically what was laid out at the briefing. I have not been able -- we're still working on trying to come up with some sort of rendering so that we can find out precisely what the briefer said.

And in the presidential news conference the day before, adjectives also appeared in W's first and third sentences addressing the same issue:

Q: Thank you, sir. General Pace says that these bombs found in Iraq do not, by themselves, implicate Iran. What makes you so certain that the highest levels of Tehran's government is responsible? [...] And how can you retaliate against Iran without risking a war?
The President: What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did.

I conjecture that Dr. Gates interpreted the Strunkish injunction as advice about attitude, not grammar. For him, "write with nouns and verbs" means "be strong and clear". "Not with adjectives and adverbs" means "avoid qualification and opinion". And never mind that strong and clear are adjectives, while qualification and opinion are nouns.

Is this a perversion of ancient doctrine by grammatical liberals? Well, as Geoff Pullum explained three years ago ("Those who take the adjectives from the table", 2/18/2004), the original commandment is

... moronic advice, and impossible to follow. ...in the very next sentence they use adjectives themselves, of course. (An indecisive disjunction of adjectives, in fact: "weak or inaccurate". Well which is it? Be clear, they would say to you if you wrote that.)

Thus on a literal or fundamentalist interpretation, Strunk and White were hypocrites, and their followers have all been fools.

In comparison, the liberal exegesis -- that this is just a morphological metaphor for communicative morality, and has never had anything to do with literal grammatical analysis -- is attractive. At least, it allows us to retain a better opinion of our fellow citizens. On this this view, the parts of speech are just characters in a parable, whose logic is dream logic. We shouldn't try to eliminate actual adjectives and adverbs from our sentences, any more than we should look for good Samaritans in Samaria. But meditating abstractly on Strunk's strictures will make us better writers, just as reading bible stories as fiction will make us better people.

A curious theory; but I suppose it's kinder than the hypocrites-and-fools interpretation.

To help you interpret Dr. Gates in context, here's my transcription of the Q & A in question:

Q: Mr. Secretary, you- as a career intelligence professional, how do you feel that the evidence against Iran was presented on Sunday,
and do you feel the way in which it was presented
has harmed the case you were trying to make?
Gates: uh
well all I can say in the latter case is I hope not.
um {cough} I felt- I think that it was-
as the chairman described, it was very important to present
the facts as we know them.
And- and to the degree
*I* had any uh involvement, it was to say,
I want factual statements;
I don't want adjectives;
I don't want adverbs;
I want declarative sentences;
and make it exactly [kir]- clear what we know and what we don't know.
And- and I think in the factual part of the briefing
that was achieved,
in terms of the evidence of-
of the weapons that are being brought into
uh Ir- uh into Iraq.

And audio of the central sentence:

Note that if Dr. Gates had followed his own instructions, he would have said:

I want statements;
I don't want adjectives;
I don't want adverbs;
I want sentences;
and make it what we know and what we don't know.

For your listening pleasure, the edited audio version:

An improvement? We report, you decide.

[This is not the only recent application of grammatical terminology in matters of national security. Less than two months ago, Tony Snow relied on morphosyntactic analysis to clarify the president's degree of lack of disagreement with Colin Powell about the situation in Iraq.]

[John Cowan offers an alternative theology -- White was Paul to Strunk's Jesus, and in any case, these are just the first steps on the gradus ad parnassum, sort of like the old-fashioned exercises in species counterpoint, in which compositional liberty is added one careful step at a time:

Strunk, at least, must be absolved from the charges of hypocrisy and folly, for he was not in any way responsible for the "Write with nouns and verbs" rule.

There is also a deeper point, which I express in my introduction to the Elements of Style Revised:

This book, therefore, is intended as a compendium of helpful advice to novice writers in freshman composition classes, not a code of general laws of writing for all works by all writers in all circumstances. Violations of the rules can be found within the book itself -- this is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical, as The Elements of Style Revised is not a paper written for a composition class.

I'd be more impressed with that argument if S&W were explicitly presented as a set of exercises for novices, as it easily might have been.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2007 07:33 AM