Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

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.



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