May 08, 2007

Advice to the president: omit needless "in other words"

Overuse of the phrase "in other words" is one of the verbal tics that Garry Trudeau caricatures in President Bush:

Is this fair?

Slate's Complete Bushisms includes seven examples of this phrase, among 466 quoted passages comprising about 12,000 words, for a rate of 583 per million words. By comparison, in 2,559,992,056 words of English news text indexed at the LDC's online site, there are 21,576 examples of the string "in other words", for a rate of about 8.4 per million words; and in 26,151,602 words of English conversational transcripts indexed at the same site, there are 535 example of "in other words", for a rate of about 20.4 per million words.

So the rate at which this phrase is used in the Complete Bushisms is about 69 times greater than the rate found in 2.6 billion words of journalistic text; and about 29 times greater than in 26 million words of conversational transcript.

Of course, the Complete Bushisms is surely a biased sample. (And I'm not a fan of this particular genre of personality politics, for reasons explained here.) But in a long (87-minute) extemporized oration from a couple of weeks ago ("President Bush Discusses the Global War on Terror in Tipp City, Ohio", 4/23/2007), the president used "in other words" 17 times in about 12,500 words, for an astonishing rate of about 1,360 per million -- 162 times the rate in news text, and 67 times the rate in conversational transcripts.

So it's apparently fair to say that President Bush really does overuse this expression -- and he uses it at a rate that is much higher than needed for us to notice it as characteristic of him.

What about the other aspect of Trudeau's caricature, namely the use of "in other words" to connect two sentences that say exactly the same thing, in essentially the same words, with the substantive morphemes merely re-arranged:

I find it curious that they would offer comfort to our enemies instead of to our warriors. In other words, offering comfort to our enemies instead of to our warriors is something that I find curious.

There are a couple of examples somewhat like this in the Complete Bushisms, where the two parts do involve some different words, but are so close in meaning that the connective "in other words" seems odd to me:

"He was a state sponsor of terror. In other words, the government had declared, you are a state sponsor of terror."—On Saddam Hussein, Manhattan, Kan., Jan. 23, 2006

"The march to war affected the people's confidence. It's hard to make investment. See, if you're a small business owner or a large business owner and you're thinking about investing, you've got to be optimistic when you invest. Except when you're marching to war, it's not a very optimistic thought, is it? In other words, it's the opposite of optimistic when you're thinking you're going to war." —Springfield, Mo., Feb. 9, 2004 (Thanks to Garry Trudeau.)

And I found one example of this type in the recent Tipp City speech:

... And I believe that we ought to change the tax code so an employee of a corporation is treated equally as somebody who is self-employed. In other words, the tax treatment ought to be the same ...

But these examples are very much in the minority.

I've listed all the examples of "in other words" from the Tipp City speech below. Reading over them, it seems to me that President Bush uses "in other words" so often that much of the meaning has been bleached out of it for him. It's become a relatively empty sort of sentence qualifier, like "so" or "you know", and may be deployed in cases where leaving it out entirely would improve things:

A lesson learned was that, at least in my opinion, that in order to protect us, we must aggressively pursue the enemy and defeat them elsewhere so we don't have to face them here. In other words, if what happens overseas matters to the United States, therefore, the best way to protect us is to deal with threats overseas. In other words, we just can't let a threat idle; we can't hope that a threat doesn't come home to hurt us.

So what's apparently going on is that in extempraneous public speaking, President Bush, like most of us, sometimes restates things in consecutive sentences. But unlike most of us, he uses "in other words" every 30 sentences or so, more or less as a pause filler, and sometimes he uses this phrase between re-statements that are not really different enough for it to be appropriate.


Here are the rest of the Tipp City "in other words" cites:

The enemy succeeded in causing there to be sectarian strife. In other words, the government wasn't ready to provide security.

There's a -- by the way, every new phase of history has its own unique features to it. For example, you've got a kid in the battlefield and he's emailing home every day. Or, four-hour [sic] news cycles. There's a lot of -- asymmetrical warfare, or $50 weapons are sometimes used to defeat expensive vehicles. In other words, these are different times.

Clearly, there's different points of view, and that's fine. That's the greatness about our society. In my discussions with the leaders, I said, you have the authority to pass the funding legislation. That's your authority, not mine. I submitted what the Pentagon thinks it needs. In other words, the process works where I ask the Pentagon, how much do you need? What do you need to do the job? And they submitted their request, and then we, on behalf of the Pentagon, sent it up to Congress. And they have the authority to pass the -- pass the bill any way they see fit.

The difference, of course, is that this time around the enemy wouldn't just be content to stay in the Middle East, they'd follow us here.
It's interesting, I met with some congressman today, and one person challenged that. He said, I don't necessarily agree with that. In other words, I have told people that this is a unique war where an enemy will follow us home, because I believe that. But if you give al Qaeda a safe haven and enough time to plan and plot, I believe the risk is they will come and get us.

I believe it's in the interest of the United States to have a comprehensive immigration plan that meets certain objectives: one, helps us better secure our border; two, recognizes that people are doing work here that Americans are not doing; three, that recognizes that we are a nation of immigrants, and we ought to uphold that tradition in a way that honors the rule of law; four, that it's in the interest of the country that people who are here be assimilated in a way that -- with our traditions and history. In other words, those who eventually become citizens be assimilated. In other words, one of the great things about America is we've been able to assimilate people from different backgrounds and different countries. I suspect some of your relatives might be the kind of people I'm talking about.

It means some barriers, whether they be vehicle barriers, or fencing, different roads to make our enforcement folks be able to travel easier on the border; UAVs -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- infrared detection devices. In other words, this border is becoming modernized.

Now there is double fencing in this area, with a wide area in between that our Border Patrol are able to travel on. In other words, we're beginning to get a modernization program that's pretty effective.

It seems like to me that it's in our national interest to let people come on a temporary basis to do jobs Americans are not doing, on a temporary, verifiable basis, with a tamper-proof card, to let people come and do jobs Americans aren't doing, and let them go home after that so that they don't have to sneak across the border.
In other words, if there's a way for people to come in an orderly way, they won't have to try to get in the bottom of the 18-wheeler and pay a person thousands of dollars to smuggle them into the United States of America. There are a lot of employers who are worried about losing labor here in the United States. They don't know whether they're legal or illegal, by the way, because not only is there a smuggling operation, there's a document forging operation. In other words, the law that we have in place has created an entire underground system of smugglers, inn keepers, and document forgers.

And what's the most important thing we can do for this volunteer army is to provide certainty for our families.
In other words, you sign -- you volunteer to be in the military and you're deployed; we want to make sure there's certainty so that families can prepare.

Just so you know, I am concerned that a soldier getting out of -- or a Marine getting out of uniform and stays in the defense -- is transferred seamlessly from the Defense health system to the Veterans health system. In other words, one of my concerns is that there is a gap. And we owe it to these families, and these soldiers and Marines to make sure that that service is seamless.

I believe we have proven that the best way to balance the budget -- and I know many of you are concerned about a balanced budget -- is to grow the economy through low taxes, which means enhanced revenues, and be wise about spending your money. In other words, pro-growth economic policies have proven to work. And it turns out that when the economy grows, taxes increase. And therefore, the corollary is to make sure we don't over-spend.

The tax code discriminates against an individual on health care decisions. And I believe that we ought to change the tax code so an employee of a corporation is treated equally as somebody who is self-employed. In other words, the tax treatment ought to be the same, all aimed at encouraging individual decision-making in the marketplace.

And so we modernized Medicare with the prescription drug benefit, but we also did something unique when it came to government programs. We gave seniors choices. In other words, we created more of a marketplace.

[Update -- Paul B. sent in a link to a blog post from 2/8/2005, in which he offers a less charitable analysis of the president's fondness for "in other words".]

[Update #2 -- there's an interesting post about this on the Economist's Democracy in America blog, under the heading "Breaking it down for you":

I heard someone say of someone else recently, "he's the kind of guy who breaks it down for you." It was an amiable, not-too-harsh putdown. It's not "he's arrogant and condescending", quite. It's that he really styles himself a straight shooter, a man's man, one of those few people who can see through the cant and the crap, and he's going to do you a favour and break it down for you.

Bush breaks it down for you. That's why you see it so often in the "life expectancy" and "asymmetrical warfare" kind of examples—I'm sounding like Washington! I better get real and break it down again. I think he's so eager to break it down for you that he's come to rely on "in other words", and that's why he sometimes uses it as mere pause-filler.

Bush's "in other words" is born of a decent human instinct and also a canny political tactic: sound like the people, not like the officials. But he's come to define himself so much with it that its use has become nigh-absurd.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 8, 2007 05:33 PM