Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

As Your President…

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2008

The day after tomorrow, I’ll have to make a choice that I haven’t been faced with for years: Which primary should I vote in? The last time my vote in either primary had a glimmer of a chance of making a difference was in 2000. That year, I registered myself as a Republican for the sole purpose of trying to keep George W. Bush off the November ballot by voting for John McCain. It didn’t work out so well.

Now that McCain is in all likelihood going to be the Republican candidate, maybe I’ll call myself a Democrat this year to have a say in the choosing of the Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, I’m still getting recorded calls from McCain, Clinton, Obama, and their friends. McCain started his pitch in one of them like this (after the introduction):

As your president, I promise to govern as a Reagan conservative.

I hope by that he doesn’t mean authorizing covert operations in defiance of Congress. But that’s not the linguistic point I wanted to talk about. I was interested in the As your president. When he said that, I naturally thought, “Wait! You’re not the president!” If he’d said any of the following, I wouldn’t have tripped:

  • As your president, I will govern…
  • As your president, I would govern…
  • As your next president, I promise to govern…

In the first alternative phrasing, the future tense will govern fixes things up, since even though McCain isn’t the president now, he’s talking about a future situation when he will be. You can call the assumption optimistic or presumptuous depending on your attitude toward McCain, but it doesn’t leave open the objection that he isn’t president.

The next alternative phrasing is OK, too, with the conditional would govern. Of course, a campaign manager wouldn’t use this phrasing, since the conditional implies that McCain’s being elected is a remote possibility.

The third alternative phrasing works because even though promise is in the present tense, we’ve fixed things up by modifying the noun president with next, acknowledging that he’s not president now. As for the assumption that he will be, refer back to the first alternative phrasing.

Note that I didn’t say McCain’s actual script was ungrammatical. It was just confusing, because the normal way of interpreting a sentence-initial adverbial phrase like As your president is to take it as modifying the main verb of the sentence, in this case promise. But when you have another clause embedded inside the main clause, other possibilities open up. In this case, promise is followed by another verb, to govern, with I [McCain] as its understood subject. As your president can certainly modify govern; I just had to mentally paraphrase:

I promise to, as your president, govern as a Reagan conservative

The appearance of As your president at the front of the sentence, as if it had been moved all the way out of its embedded-clause home to the top of the main clause, is a case of what’s called adjunct extraction. (Adjunct, for our purposes, is synonymous with modifier, in this case an adverbial phrase.) Other things can be extracted out of deeply embedded clauses, too, like subjects and direct objects in questions:

  • Who did John say that Sarah thought that Bill ordered [missing subject] to read the report?

  • What did John say that Sarah thought that Bill ordered Jane to read [missing direct object]?

Extracting an adjunct is a little trickier, subject to more restrictions. The context has to be just right for it to work. The context here was mostly right. Right enough for me to arrive at the correct parse, but not enough for me to get there smoothly. But I guess the campaign managers figured a split-second of confusion was worth being able to have their candidate say, “As your president, I….”

Contrast this with a funny piece of direct mail I got a couple of months ago, before Obama’s winning streak was in full swing. It was a “census” sent by the RNC to registered Republicans such as myself just to, you know, assess how the nation’s Republicans felt about important issues so they could adjust their policies accordingly. For example, they wanted to know if they should “do everything we can to stop Democrats from repealing critical border and port security legislation?” There’s enough material in there for four or five posts, so this census may show up here again. The item relevant here is this one:

And if we are on the wrong side when the votes are tallied, our agenda will be demolished and America will take a disastrous turn to the left–your taxes will skyrocket as our economy grinds to a halt; the federal government will expand into every nook and cranny of society; Senate Democrats will rubber stamp every radical left-wing judge Senator Clinton sends them for confirmation for the Supreme Court.

Wow, that’s pretty serious. Not taxes skyrocketing while the economy races forward, or taxes down while the economy grinds to a halt (like now), but both. And I didn’t think there were too many nooks and crannies left for the government to expand into after the likes of the Patriot Act–though as Shakespeare said, “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.'” (King Lear, Act IV, Scene I). Senate Democrats (but not Republicans) will rubber-stamp (not debate and sometimes approve) every radical left-wing judge (not just radical, not just left-wing, but radical and left-wing; note also the invited inference that the number of such judges will be greater than zero, and will in fact be equal to the total number of nominated judges) Senator Clinton sends them–

Whoa! Now I’m not a Constitutional scholar, or even a serious Constitution buff like Glen or his friends Tom and DGM, but I am pretty confident that senators do not nominate judges for the Supreme Court. To make this sentence Constitutionally accurate, they need to say something like President Clinton or current Senator Clinton. Or maybe even President Obama.

2 Responses to “As Your President…”

  1. ben said

    I’m curious, what do you think it means to be a Republican or a Democrat? I understand that, to an extent, a party could be viewed simply as a means to an end, but to vote in someone else’s primary always struck me as cheating. Really, if you’re going to vote in the other side’s primary, what’s to stop you voting in multiple states? Is it that one is ethics and the other is a law?

    Also, I don’t follow why it’s odd to say “radical left-wing,” since left-wing by itself is a fairly vague modifier. Radical is generally associated with the left, but not exclusively so.

  2. Kip said

    I guess you live in a state where independents are not allowed to vote in primaries? I’m registered as an independent in NC, so I have the option of voting in either primary without changing my registration. Of course, NC primaries are the first Tuesday in May, so the contest is almost always decided by then.

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