These pundits need to learn when to simply say Ehhh. It happens. (You only need to watch if you haven't yet seen or heard McCain's "I couldn't agree with them more" flub. The relevant part starts around 3:20.)
So now we've all seen the video of John McCain's stumble. Memorize it. Practice it. Impress your friends with your inability to move forward from old news stories.
I think you may have noticed that Senator Obama's supporters have been saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, I couldn't agree with them more. I couldn't disagree with you. I couldn't agree with you more than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh] G-d loving most…most patriotic part of America... this is a great part of the country. My friends: I could not ag— I could not disagree with those critics more.
Keith Olbermann wonders if it's fatigue, panic or a Freudian slip, and Chris Cillizza prudently suggests it's just fatigue. While fatigue is just the type of factor that makes these mistakes more likely, it's an unnecessary analysis. The phrase gets tripped up more by negation than anything else. Cillizza adds that he tries not to ridicule in such cases because he's probably going to make just such a mistake someday. Bravo Chris. Leave the carping to us silly bloggers.
What was McCain trying to say? Probably I couldn't disagree more. But that simple 4 word phrase is very easy to mis-negate (We'll use that word for any overnegation or undernegation that results in an incorrect negation.)
- correct negations
- I disagree
- I couldn't/can't agree
- I couldn't/can't disagree more
- incorrect negations
- I agree
- I couldn't/can't disagree
- I couldn't/can't agree more
While we tend to process language word by word when we hear it (input)—that's what makes some garden-path sentences so difficult—when we produce language (output) we tend to plan ahead. And even tho we have a sense of where we're going we sometimes forget where we've been.†
So let's track McCain as his plans of saying I couldn't disagree more gang a-gley
[They're] saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, —
Say it's wrong John they're wrong which means I don't agree with them— I couldn't agree with them —
that's right. I couldn't. No. Wait. Can't. No it's cool. The line starts with couldn't. Now how does it end?—more. —
CRAP! Change it quick!—I couldn't disagree with you…—
Stop! Don't say 'more.' So it's still OK, right?— I couldn't agree with you more —
What? They didn't say anything. Ah hell just finish it somehow. What comes after 'more'? ... 'more than' OK.— than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh]&mdash
What did they tell me about these 'most' lines?— G-d loving, most—
Wait, that's the line that's been getting us in trouble. Don't say it!—most patriotic part of America...—
SHIT!— this is a great part of the country. —
That's fine. Let's wrap this up.—My friends: I could not ag—
MOTHERFUCKER!!— I could not disagree with those critics more. —
We've all done something like this. Obama's done this. Olbermann's done this. Such mangled utterances are too common to be very telling. But they're certainly inopportune.
† I'm convinced this is what accounts for some double-prepositional construction such as for whom are you waiting for? or with whom are you speaking with?