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2012 Archives

William Lawrence: Grammar In Political Speech


The following essay by Professor William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, was first broadcast August 15, 2012, on KERA public radio.

August 16, 2012

SMU William B. Lawrence, Dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist UniversityProfessor and Dean William Lawrence says it is very important to use correct grammar, especially when it comes to political speech. Following are his comments or listen to the broadcast. audio icon

We should all strive to use correct grammar, but commentator William Lawrence says it’s very important when it comes to political speech.

For a long time, I have felt that civilization is jeopardized less by nuclear weapons and ecological disaster than by breakdowns in communication. Now I have evidence that problems in communication pose serious threats and that those problems are caused by bad grammar.

The proof appeared in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Nearly half of the companies in one study reported rising expenses for improving employees’ grammar. Corporations finance coaching for subordinates who struggle to correct grammatical misstatements by superiors. It costs good money to fix bad language.

If the problem were only a private matter, it could be resolved privately. Just close the door and tell a coworker that a decision about lunch is not “between she and I.” It is between “her and me.”

But the problem is too big to be addressed in a home or an office. Reporters routinely say, “The economic data shows that unemployment remains high.” Politicians repeatedly say, “The media is chasing an old story.” Can politicians be accurate about facts when they do not even recognize the word “media” is a plural noun referring to multiple sources? Can I trust a reporter who thinks of data as a singular bit of information when data are more than one item?

If these concerns were mere pedantry or prissiness, I could end this commentary and get back to the news where the media ARE reporting what the data SHOW. But grammar can be deliberately misused to deceive.

British journalist David Frost said he learned in decades of interviews that when a person says, “I have nothing to hide” it is actually a weird way of saying: “I have already hidden everything.”

So here is some advice on how to prevent the ravages of bad grammar from destroying our civilization.

First, beware of the passive voice. Reporters often say, “It is expected that the company’s quarterly profits will rise by six percent.” But who set the expectations and on what basis? The passive voice can deceive us. A former President of the United States responded to a scandal in his administration by passively declaring, “Mistakes were made.” Made by whom? He never said. The passive voice keeps answers hidden.

Second, pay attention to parts of speech. Often at political rallies, someone pleads to “take America back.” But what does that mean? Grammatically, “back” can be a noun (“America has a bad back”), an adjective (“Arizona is the back door to America”), a verb (“back America in wartime”), or an adverb (“let’s go back to an earlier time in America”).

If the slogan “take America back” uses an adverb, the plea is misleading. America is already back. The poverty level in the United States is now as high as it was back in the 1960’s. Health care is as limited as it was back before the enactment of Medicare. Public education in science and math is as anemic as it was back in the 1950’s, before the Soviets launched Sputnik and scared us into spending tax dollars on schools. We have taken America back sixty years.

Bad grammar is expensive and dangerous to democracy. Instead of taking America back, we should decide to go forward boldly—without splitting an infinitive.