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Politics and language

No doubt you recall how often George W. Bush’s political enemies chortled over his misadventures with the English language. What was back of the laughter was the understanding “What a dope, what a dolt, what a dunce.” But he wasn’t, and isn’t. Mr. Bush’s entire career shows that he is a shrewd politician who allowed his opponents to underestimate him. Ronald Reagan was another.

Older readers will recall how the same pattern played out with Dwight Eisenhower, who often as president took on the English language and wrestled it to a draw. But Ike was a canny general and, overall, a more successful president than many of his successors. Fluency is not necessarily a mark of intelligence or ability.

I bring this up because I want to give some wider currency to a post today on Language Log by Mark Liberman about some recent supposed analyses of Barack Obama’s speech patterns.

Professor Liberman takes some trouble to demolish recent articles by Kathleen Parker contending that Mr. Obama’s use of the passive voice makes him “feminine,” and Paul Payack arguing that the length of Mr. Obama’s sentences makes him “professorial.”

You will want to read the whole post, and probably to explore the many links to previous posts about the passive voice and Mr. Payack’s dubious assertions about language. But I’ll summarize a couple of salient points.

Professor Liberman looked at speeches by Mr. Bush and counted a higher rate of passives and longer sentences than in Mr. Obama’s speeches. These points should be reinforced: that length of sentences is not necessarily an index of clarity or impenetrability, and that the passive voice — even when the writer identifies it correctly — is not inherently masculine or feminine.

What we see in all these instances is a tendency, reinforced by journalistic practice, to start with a well-formed opinion, usually unfavorable, and then pile up superficialities to support it. And language, particularly for writers who are not all that reliable about the technicalities, readily supplies such superficialities.

Your opinions about Messrs. Eisenhower, Bush, Obama, and others are your own, and you have every right to them. But if you plan to trumpet them, you might make the effort to ground them in something substantial.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (5)


Liberman is a sane voice on these linguistic superficialities. Too often over the past 10 years he's seemed like the only one.

@Tom -- and what's odd (frustrating?) is that the only thing Liberman does is take the assertion and actually test it against the data.

The passive voice is the mark of a trained attorney, regardless of gender.

Facts, facts! We don't need no stinking facts!

Since you mention Eisenhower, it seems fair to point out that, like his near contemporary Casey Stengel, he could "wrestle" the English language "to a draw" for effect, but be quite clear and direct when he wanted to be.

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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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