Verbal Energy

He perhaps didn't build that sentence very well

A grammar geek has to love it when 'syntax' makes headlines.

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It's been called the fundamental issue of this year's presidential election: What role should government play in people's lives? The Democrats paint the two worldviews as "We're all in this together" versus "You're on your own." The Republicans see the man in the White House as a socialist whose reflexive response to any problem is to propose a new federal government program.

Ears attuned to the Political Sound Bite Warning Network pricked up at a comment President Obama made July 13:

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."

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Once we heard those words out of the president's mouth, "you didn't build that," it was clear we would be hearing them again and again. He has stood by the essence of his comment, though not the way he expressed it. "Obviously, I have regrets for my syntax," he said Sept. 5, "but not for the point, because everyone who was there watching knows exactly what I was saying."

It gladdened the heart of this grammar geek to see "syntax" in headlines. But was "syntax" really the right word? Just what is syntax, anyway? Etymologically, syntax comes from two Greek elements, "syn" meaning "together," as in synergy ("working together"), and "tax," referring to ordering or arranging. Taxidermy is, literally, an arrangement of skin.

In grammar and linguistics, syntax is "the study of the rules whereby words or other elements of sentence structure are combined to form grammatical sentences," according to Webster's New World College Dictionary. But the president's comments, as transcribed by FactCheck.org above, reflect no syntax problems. They certainly hang together – grammatically at least. It's the content that the Republicans have seized on, and understandably so. Mr. Obama might have been better off saying simply, "I misspoke."

To misspeak is "to speak mistakenly, inappropriately, or rashly," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. It's a verb that's helpful to anyone apologizing for a verbal slip – getting a phone number or a date wrong, for instance. The tongue sometimes stumbles over what the mind holds clearly in thought. But the meaning of "misspeak" has been stretched to the point where it can be seen as a euphemistic acknowledgment, "I said something that wasn't so," or even, gasp, "I lied."

Obama might have gone for "syntax" precisely because he wanted to avoid saying he "misspoke."

Sometimes words come out of people's mouths wrong, especially when they spend a lot of time in front of live microphones.

Andrew Nash, in The Morning Sun, in Kansas, wrote a few weeks ago, "Every major politician, Democrat or Republican, of the last 10-15 years has had to contritely say, 'I misspoke,' " and he came up with an impressive bipartisan list to make his case.

The fair test of a sound bite that really comes back to bite is whether it squares with the truth of a public figure's convictions and actions. That can take longer than a single news cycle to settle. Meanwhile, the "misspeak" defense can provide, by its very ambiguity, cover for politicians and others to separate themselves from the truly dumb things they say and move on.

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