Some of us live in the past. Others -- if you go by one of Barack Obama's remarks in a speech last week -- have been living most of their adult lives in the future. At a fund-raising event in Philadelphia, he said:
There's (sic) still too many people who are out of work, too many homes underwater, and middle-class families that still don't have the confidence that the future for their kids and grandkids are (sic) going to be brighter than their futures have been (sic).
This president gets the right agreement between noun and verb only half the time. For the sake of consistency it might be better if he got it wrong all the time. He would then say: There's still too many people who's out of work, too many homes that's underwater, etc. And then there is the howler about the past-tense futures, which is another kind of solecism.
Earlier in the day, Obama spoke, and misspoke, to graduating students at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Among other things, he said:
So my expectation is that somebody in this auditorium is going to figure out new sources of energy that help not only make us more energy independent, but also deals (sic) with problems like (sic) climate change.
Again, there is the lack of agreement between a plural subject and a singular verb. Another recurring feature of Obama speeches is the loose use of the word like (meaning similar to) as an inappropriate substitute for some variation of the unambiguous and definitive such as. Here the problem in sound and usage could have easily been avoided by saying: but also deal with climate change and other problems.
But the more deep-seated problem on the part of Obama and his handlers at the White House is a disregard for substance -- a disregard, that is, for meaning, or truth. Take this passage in the same speech to graduating high school students:
So the bottom line is, we're proud of you. You are going to succeed. You're well on your way. The last thing I'd ask of you, even as you focus on your chosen field and you are moving forward, is to make sure that you also give back, that for a lot of you in your neighborhoods there may not be as many kids who are interested in math and science. And you need to make sure that where you have the opportunity, you're mentoring and serving as a good role model for the next generation coming up behind you.
There are so many problems with that passage -- the leadenness of prose, the banality of sentiment, and the incoherence of thought and expression -- that is difficult to know where to begin. I will just point out that the president was addressing a group of 18-year-olds. For people of this age, the next generation, as it is usually understood, is yet to be born -- coming 20-to-25 years after their own arrival on earth. So how are they supposed to set out that day and begin mentoring and serving as good role models to the next generation of youths coming up behind them? Beyond that, how is a graduating high school senior supposed to serve as a mentor and a good role model not just for a younger person, but for a whole generation?
Amazingly, www.Whitehouse.gov is happy to record all of these grammatical mistakes and verbal infelicities. These aren't the errors of someone speaking off the cuff. Day in and day out, Obama and his speechwriters bake all kinds of slovenly language into the text of speeches that the president will read from his teleprompter. The White House website provides an ongoing record of speeches that abound in dangling participles, fractured syntax, and obvious grammatical errors. You read for instance about all the "good paying jobs" that our government has created or saved.
No doubt the president's minders are toeing a fine line. On the one hand, they don't want to write fini to the risible idea that the president is the world's greatest orator and the smartest man ever to sit in the White House. On the other, they do want to play up the sympathy that he feels for the pitiable "99%." Surely, it must be reassuring for this wide assortment of dumbed-down losers and victims to know that the president of the United States is like them in at least one regard: He doesn't give a damn about the esoteric grammatical difference between jobs that pay good and jobs that pay well.
Grammar provides the framework of good writing. It facilitates clarity, or ease of understanding for the listener or reader. It shows a healthy respect for the reader's time and intelligence. The writer does not put the reader to unnecessary trouble (having, for instance, to puzzle out the connection between the subject and the verb). Nor does he make the snide assumption that the reader won't be able to comprehend complex ideas that are expressed in clear language.
But perhaps there is method to Obama's grammatical sloppiness. A job that pays good does sound like the kind of job that our president goes out of his way to support: the kind that would never exist without some combination of union blackmail and government subsidies. And that does differentiate it from the job that pays well: a job with a genuine connection between the value of the work performed and the compensation provided.
Slovenly grammar begets logical inconsistencies -- and it may also betray contempt for logic itself. Obama began his presidency by promising that we would "spend our way out of this recession." And spend he did -- with trillion-dollar annual deficits that have caused total federal indebtedness to balloon from $10.6 trillion to $15.7 trillion over the past four years. Now he has the effrontery to claim that he has been the thriftiest president since Dwight Eisenhower.
Will Obama succeed in winning a second term?
I don't know, but here are two certainties --
First, regardless of his own beliefs, the president will say whatever he thinks people want to hear, and he will continue to say it in the kind of dumbed-down sub-English that he thinks will rally his sorry constituency of class-warfare victims.
And second, if he does win in November, it won't be on the strength and power of his oratory. In fact, Barack O'Gobbledygook is probably the most overrated orator in world history.
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