Thursday, July 24, 2008

McCain is too tense

John McCain has used some shameless sleight of word to get his claims past the lie detector. But a May 28 statement didn't get past Steven Pinker who passed it on to Geoff Pullum who then quotes foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann's promise: If you're going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we're going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign.

Less than two months later and it's like McCain is playing with a new toy: verb tenses. He's just throwing them around as if trying to cover every possible span of time.

Of course Jon Stewart has to get in a jab.


Stewart: Ultimately through his frustration McCain insisted that he had the correct Iraq policies no matter which verb tense you use.

McCain (on video): We will succeed. We have succeeded and we will win the war in Iraq.

And we are winning!

Stewart: And then we will have won! Having been winning we will have had to win! My friends we will would have.


Watch the full episode here.

2 comments:

  1. Poor McCain. He's really taking a bruising this week on the Daily Show. Such a lame duck.

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  2. Robert Wilson29 July, 2008 09:18

    Spoken political language can be a great source for linguistic analysis. It has its own distinctive style of presentation, and is interesting for not only what politicians do and do not say, but also the way they say it. The following is a sample of spoken political language used by U.S. presidential hopeful Senator John McCain and comic Jon Stewart shown on The Daily Show July 23 2008 (Stewart 2008):

    Stewart: Ultimately through his frustration McCain insisted that he had the correct Iraq policies no matter which verb tense you use.

    McCain (on video): We will succeed. We have succeeded and we will win the war in Iraq.
    And we are winning!

    Stewart: And then we will have won! Having been winning we will have had to win! My friends we will would have.
    We will succeed. We have succeeded and we will win the war in Iraq. And we are winning!
    McCain’s statement will now be examined on syntactical and semantic grounds, to identify what makes political speech distinctive from other verbal communications.
    1 Syntax
    Obviously, the most distinctive aspect of Senator McCain’s statement is the use of multiple tenses for the verbs ‘succeed’ and ‘win.’ His talk vacillates as the verb tense moves through the future, past, future and finally the present continuous.
    2 Semantics
    What makes this so funny and intriguing is that he seems to be trying to convince both himself as well as the audience the truth of his words. In trying to project strength and confidence, McCain only seems only to manage a result that is a syntactic and semantic mess.

    Although McCain’s words appeared to be very confusing in the written form, it was a spoken political speech that required some sort of repetition to sink in. This is my interpretation of his statement: In Iraq, we have won and continue to win the battles and we will win the war. If this was his meaning, then why didn’t he try to say it this clearly? One reason could be is that it is more boring, and lacks the political punch to attract his supporters’ attention. Also, using verb tense to make statements that are general, vague and ambiguous could be a vital protection mechanism for any budding President of the United States.

    Past Present Future
    succeed battles war
    win battles war
    It will be assumed that the war in Iraq is not over. The problem is that ‘succeed’ and ‘win’ are being used as intransitive verbs. In order to clarify exactly just what McCain is trying to say, it may be helpful to insert the word ‘battle’ for the past and present tense of ‘succeed’ and ‘win’: We will succeed in the war. We have succeeded in the battles and we will win the war in Iraq. And we are winning the battles!

    Past Present Future
    win battles battles war
    It is even clearer if ‘succeed’ is replaced ‘win’, because it may be assumed that McCain is using them for the same meaning: We will win the war. We have won the battles and we will win the war in Iraq. And we are winning the battles! Apart from the duplication, McCain’s statement can now be understood as a clearly powerful message of his resolve towards the Iraq war.

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