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Dick Cavett has had some jolly fun in The New York Times with Sarah Palin’s improbable syntax, zinging her, in part, as “one who seems to have no first language.”

One may feel less sympathy for the governor than for, say, the interviewers desperately trying to grapple her unanchored prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses before the swift-moving current carries them out to sea. Or for the poor devil commenting on Cavett’s essay who as an American in Brittany was asked to translate Palin into French for the neighbors.

Palin is far from the first elected official to be mocked for getting ensnared in syntax. You may recall Dan Quayle’s mangling of the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” as “What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.” You may also recall — balanced treatment here — Richard Daley pere saying, “The police are not here to create disorder. They are here to preserve disorder.”

But I think that indulging in extensive ridicule, including attempts to diagram her sentences, may go a little far. We may be seeing evidence of her getting this treatment because she is a woman.

Why, you wonder, do I think so?

Consider this sentence: “Any onset of increased investor caution elevates risk premiums and, as a consequence, lowers asset values and promotes the liquidation of the debt that supported higher asset prices. … This is the reason that history has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums.”

It was uttered by Alan Greenspan, who, during nearly 19 years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, regularly produced utterances that were treated as reverently by the news media as if they were Sibylline oracles. The very opacity of his remarks was received and noted with something like awe. Then, in his testimony before Congress last month, we discovered that he was, um, mistaken.

We lampoon Governor Palin as a latter-day Lucy Ricardo (not entirely fair, since Lucy’s illogic always made a zany sense, while Governor Palin’s non-logic merely baffles). Male figures in government whose jargon defies paraphrase command respect. This cannot be right.

You Don’t Say stands forthrightly in favor of equal ridicule for all.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:21 PM | | Comments (11)


"You Don’t Say stands forthrightly in favor of equal ridicule for all."

Hear, hear!

I can't speak for everyone, but I have ridiculed her syntax not because she's a woman, but because she's a self-avowed plain-talkin' woman of the people. One would expect more than the gobbledygook that routinely emerges.

And actually, I'd be happy to ridicule Alan Greenspan; I'm an equal-opportunity ridiculist.

I think you're misunderestimating Pailn. She's sly like the wolf. (That is, a wolf that is not near a helicopter.) Palin uses "maverick syntax." It's part of her overall strategry.

Perhaps so.

But undercutting your argument for a cleverly concealed intelligence is the blunt fact that she received a degree in journalism.

And broadcast at that.

PS Forgot to note what an excellent title you have for this blog post. :-)

i think she received more ridicule not simply because she's a woman but because she's a very attractive woman. Believe me, I cringed and groaned as much as anyone at what Sarah Palin said AND how she said it. But I found Dick Cavett's column to be a bit offensive/sexist.

In all fairness, the Bushes--both father and son--have garnered a good measure of ridicule for their syntactic ineptitude.

syntactic ineptitude. What a lovely turn of phrase. Thank you, Mr Walderman

Speaking strictly for myself, I enjoy the ridicule because I can't stand the woman. Same was true for W--I even read Going Nucular.

Kerry--did you read "Shrub" by Molly Ivins as well? Fortunately, this will all soon be history, not current events.

I submit that it's Alan Greenspan's "job" to talk like that -- to speak in code to the financial illuminati while scaring the rest of us away from any serious effort to understand what they're up to -- whereas it's a governor's or candidate's job to answer legitimate questions forthrightly and to stir us to collective greatness through serious rhetoric. Isn't it sexist to have lower expectations of a female governor than of a male policy wonk?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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