Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pronoun fever: Catch it

Language Log sheds some further light on Charles Krauthammer's latest pseudo-psycholinguistic fabrications about presidential discourse, with the excellent addition of an entry from Safire's Political Dictionary:

my (use of possessive pronoun): Used as in "my ambassador," either a slip of the tongue leading to an attack for royalist tendencies, or a deliberate presidential effort to undercut the State Department.

Brief detour. Bill Safire was by most if not all accounts a genuinely decent and collegial guy (Language Hat's poignant tribute is worth revisiting). But for all the different personae he assumed in his writing (Foxy Grandpa with a steel-trap memory for campaigns past, Mr. Marple summoning his platoons of irregulars to crowdsource the truth), he was at bottom a political creature. When the push of observation came to the shove of ideology, the latter tended to win -- at least, often enough to make him a lodestone of the particular brand of fiction-posing-as-analysis that seems to be in fashion on the WashPost's op-ed pages of late.

Thus, when Safire introduces historical evidence to support a current assertion about language and its effects, it's often a good idea to take a splash in the archives first. Back to the Dictionary:

Dwight Eisenhower, a team player, consciously avoided the possessive pronoun. "I don't believe," wrote reporter* Robert Donovan, "that Eisenhower has ever used the expression 'my administration' or 'my Cabinet.' He speaks of the Cabinet or the administration."

It takes all of two or three minutes to find this letter from Ike to Konrad Adenauer, discussing the disposition of confiscated German assets, reported in the NYT of Aug. 11, 1954:

Several bills dealing with the subject are now pending there [in Congress], and members of my Cabinet and other Government officials have appeared and expressed their views. None of the measures thus far proposed have the approval of my Administration, but you may be assured that this problem is receiving earnest consideration and it is my hope that a fair, equitable and satisfactory solution can be arrived at.

I like Ike's writing here: no Oxford comma, no strained attempt to avoid the perfectly well-placed preposition at the end of the sentence, comfortable use of the passive voice where it's appropriate ("you may be assured"). And, of course, what I would interpret as an assertion of personal responsibility in "my Cabinet" and "my Administration."

An interpretation is exactly that -- an inference you draw about what evidence means in its context. No doubt we could construct a "my Cabinet" sentence that means or implies something entirely different: "My Cabinet will look like America," meaning "and yours doesn't, you Skull-n-Bones elitist." I like my reading of the Ike letter, but I'm open to other ones, partly because I think there's a high risk of overstretch in drawing broad psychological conclusions from isolated examples of language.

The point, though, is that you get to conclusions by starting with evidence. And the message to America's Newspapers is the same: Charles Krauthammer doesn't use evidence. He makes things up, and he draws broad psychological conclusions from stuff he makes up. You have every right to ask for a refund from the Post syndicate. Why do you continue to pay for this stuff?

* And a tip of the hat to Hat for not following NYT style, which would have called for making him "the reporter Robert Donovan."


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