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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

The Accidental Debaters

Most people watched the Obama-Romney debate last Wednesday night to hear what the candidates had to say about domestic issues and the economy. The pundits watched it like judges at a boxing match, keeping track of who landed more verbal punches. I watched it for another reason: to see who would have more accidents of style.

It was a close contest. As my wife pointed out, these two guys have four Ivy League degrees between them, so you’d think they wouldn’t skid off the stylistic road too badly or too often. Not so. There were plenty of citable offenses.

For starters, they both happily trotted out their pet introductory phrases, or sentence-openers. Five times Romney came roaring out of the gates with the beastly with regards to. With regards to what? Broadway? That should have been with regard to, because to regard is to give attention to something, and the only proper use of the noun regards is when you’re giving them or closing an email. Obama, for his part, only prolonged the debate by beginning five sentences with the superfluous filler phrase the fact of the matter is. But the advantage goes to Obama here: although his sentence-opener is verbose, it doesn’t misuse any words.

Romney grabbed the pleonasm prize—pleonasm is the use of more words than are necessary to express an idea—for saying “I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people” (who else but a lot of people can something be popular with?), and also for saying that Dodd-Frank “includes within it a number of provisions . . .” Why not just includes a number of provisions? But Obama ran away with redundant bragging rights, clocking six uses of what Barbara Wallraff has called “that notorious little waste of words”: the reason is because. Romney hit that redundant guardrail only twice.

Romney almost had the clear winner for a sentence with the weirdest syntax. He said, “And we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.” But Obama matched his opponent’s verbal underachievement when he fell into a maelstrom of messed-up pronouns with this bungled sentence: “They have to let you keep your kid on their insurance—your insurance plan till you’re 26 years old.”

Predictably, Romney committed the undemocratic sin of using the noun democrat in place of the adjective Democratic, meaning “pertaining or belonging to the Democratic Party.” Twice he bragged that as governor of Massachusetts he was able to cooperate with a legislature that was “87 percent democrat.” Would he have fared even better had the legislature been 47 percent Democratic?

Romney had some trouble finding the politically correct way to refer to underprivileged young people: “These are disabled kids or—or poor kids or—or lower-income kids, rather.” He also screwed up the number of his verb in a neither . . . nor construction. He said, “Neither the president nor I are . . .” When the second of the two elements referred to in a neither . . . nor construction is singular, the verb must be singular: “Neither the president nor I am . . .”

Both men had more than their share of distracting disfluencies, the stumbles and interruptions in what should be smoothly flowing speech. For example, Obama said, “You had—loan officers were—they were giving loans and mortgages that really shouldn’t have been given, because they’re—the folks didn’t qualify.” And Romney said, “You put $90 billion into—into green jobs. And—and I—look, I’m all in favor of green energy. Ninety billion—that—that would have—that would have hired 2 million teachers.” (I think the math in that statement may also be disfluent.)

But Obama won this round because Romney was also cloyingly repetitive, using certain words over and over. One example: “And the Republicans had a—had a plan. They put a plan out. They put out a plan, a bipartisan plan.”

In pronunciation both did suprisingly well. I didn’t catch Romney uttering anything beastly, while Obama stumbled only with the word particularly, which a couple of times came out as pur-tickly. They both invoked the phrase small business ad nauseam, so that’s a wash. And if I had a nickel for every time somebody said 716 billion I’d be wealthier by about five bucks. (I counted at least a hundred citations in the transcript.)

So which candidate should have his verbal insurance premium spiked for committing the most accidents of style?

Romney lost points for having the only stunning lapsus linguae (LAP-sus LING-gwee), or slip of the tongue, of the debate when he declared, “This is why the American people don’t want Medicare—uh, Obamacare!” And I had to give Obama points for not committing one of the most common accidents of style: using the nominative pronoun I as an objective pronoun, as in the erroneous for you and I and between her and I. Despite his earlier pronominal lapse, Obama got his pronouns perfect when he said, “So when Gov. Romney indicates that he wants to cut taxes and potentially benefit folks like me and him. . .”

So as I tally it, Obama wins by a pronoun. But it was close. I can’t wait to see what potholes Joe Biden and Paul Ryan hit when they go mano a mano tomorrow night.

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