Words don't lie, part III: Campaign rhetoric gives way to campaign linguistics

Dennis Baron debaron at illinois.edu
Thu Oct 9 15:14:27 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Words don't lie, part III: Campaign rhetoric gives way to campaign  

Language has taken on a special prominence in the 2008 presidential  
election. It's customary for each side to malign the opposition for  
using words that are vague or deceptive, and even for lying outright –  
nothing new there. But this time around it's Language with a big "L"  
that's also coming under scrutiny, the use of language as a whole, not  
just individual words unfairly spun or improperly deployed.

Republicans in this campaign adamantly disapprove of Democrats using  
any words at all. As James Woods points out in the New Yorker, Phyllis  
Schlafly dismissed Barack Obama as "just an élitist who worked with  
words" (and I thought only élitists spelled the word with an acute  
accent), while praising Sarah Palin for working not with words but  
with her hands (shooting moose from a helicopter when you're seven  
months pregnant sure trumps writing books).

Palin herself trivialized Obama for, as she put it, "authoring" two  
books – apparently everybody but bloggers knows that writing is a  
waste of time. Using words is something that elitists do, when they're  
not windsurfing and sipping chablis. Instead they should emulate  
Republicans and do stuff that's really important, like popping open  
beer cans or trying to remember where they put the keys to their many  
houses and cars.

But Republican language is being dismissed just as cavalierly by the  
other side of the aisle. Kitty Burns Florey diagrammed Sarah Palin's  
sentences in Slate to demonstrate that they were ungrammatical. Florey  
concludes that what Palin says is "not English – it's a collection of  
words strung together."

That makes Palin unfit to lead, since according to Florey,  
"politicians need to be able to think on their feet, to have a brain  
that works quickly and rationally under pressure." True enough, but  
Slate's grammarian goes on to equate undiagrammable sentences like  
Palin's with sloppy, irrational thinking – expressing the kind of  
attitude about linguistic correctness that all of us have heard at  
least once in our lives, often from an irrational grammarian  
criticizing an essay we handed in for homework.

read the rest of this post on the Web of Language
Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


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