Which candidate has the bigger problem conveying meaning?
posted at 3:55 pm on September 25, 2012 by Howard Portnoy
The topics of grammar and usage rarely come up in a presidential race, but that’s because both major party candidates generally have a firm grasp on the syntax of their native language. That the president suffers the occasional communications lapse (despite early claims about his oratory gifts) became a headline story in July with respect to his now-infamous “You didn’t build that” speech.
Initially, Obama’s friends in the liberal media insisted that their conservative counterparts were taking his words out of context. But a close examination of the context did little to advance their claim, prompting some to declare ultimately that his words simply came out wrong.
The problem with his statement was that it violated a rule of style which dictates that the noun or noun phrase closest to a pronoun is its antecedent. In the sentence “John called Mary a Democrat, then she insulted him back,” the antecedent of the pronoun him is clear. In the president’s case, the antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun that was business—not roads and bridges, as defenders futilely argued. Here is the problem sentence.
Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.… [Emphasis added]
Obama’s communications struggles continued on Sunday with his appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes. At one point he told host Steve Kroft, “When it comes to our national security decisions—any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out—any noise that’s out there.” His reference to noise struck most observers as an obvious dig at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a requested meeting with whom Obama has been assiduously avoiding. Press Secretary Jay Carney, however, attempted to defuse the insult by telling reporters that the president’s ” objective is to take every step possible to enhance Israel’s security.” If you find it difficult to connect those dots, don’t unduly berate yourself. The connection between Obama’s and Carney’s statements is non-existent.
Carney also found himself forced to defend the president’s remark that “I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road.” The comment was an answer to Kroft’s question whether “the recent events in the Middle East [had] given you any pause about your support for the governments that have come to power following the Arab Spring.”
ABC News’s Jake Tapper received an email from a “senior administration official” after the show that claimed, “It’s just not true that he was characterizing the attack in Benghazi—the question doesn’t even make mention of it. He’s speaking about broad trends.” As James Taranto acknowledges, Kroft’s “question didn’t specifically mention the attack in Benghazi, but surely it would top anybody’s list of ‘the recent events in the Middle East.’”
With all the president’s unscripted missteps, it seemed only natural that commentators on the left were waiting to pounce on an unforced error by Romney that involved style or grammar. They seemed to find what they were looking for when the GOP candidate spoke about the emergency landing of his wife’s aircraft on Friday due to an electrical malfunction. The Los Angeles Times quotes the presidential hopeful:
I appreciate the fact that she is on the ground, safe and sound. And I don’t think she knows just how worried some of us were. When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no—and you can’t find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real problem. So it’s very dangerous. And she was choking and rubbing her eyes. Fortunately, there was enough oxygen for the pilot and copilot to make a safe landing in Denver. But she’s safe and sound. [Emphasis added]
The left-leaning Think Progress jumped on the story, haughtily explaining to Romney (who, according to its headline “doesn’t understand why you can’t roll down windows on a plane”):
Air crafts [sic] do not open windows because the cabins are pressurized to fly safely at an altitude of tens of thousand feet. Opening a window in an airplane would seriously sicken the passengers and crew.
A look back at the clumsily worded observation suggests there are two grammatical infelicities. One is the antecedent of that in the highlighted sentence. If, following the aforementioned rule of style, the antecedent is the proposition the windows don’t open, then what is the import of the double negative (“I don’t know why they don’t do that”) in the following sentence?
As Allahpundit points out, one possible reading is that “a guy with a joint degree from Harvard Law and Harvard Business, who’s made hundreds of millions of dollars through his keen grasp of business, and who’s been flying regularly for decades … somehow hasn’t figured out yet that cabins are pressurized at high altitudes.” A second possibility, AP adds, is that Romney is “being misunderstood.”
Dissemblers on the left will go with Reading One. At the end of the day, however, American voters will be left with a choice. On the one hand is a successful businessman who misspoke on a topic that he obviously grasps along with every fifth-grader. On the other is a president who has misspoken the truth. He has snubbed our closest ally in the Middle East (most recently by downgrading them to “one of our closest allies in the region”) and is underplaying his foreign policy failings by dismissing five American deaths as “bumps in the road.”
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