01 February 2015

Parsing Sarah Palin (I promise this isn't political, it's grammatical)

 
This is not a take down of Sarah Palin, and it isn't a defense of Sarah Palin. It's more of an observation about the speech she gave recently in Iowa. It was pretty much panned from all points of the political spectrum and one of the biggest criticisms has been her (not new) trouble with the English language. There are plenty of reasons why people are piling on at the moment, but there is something about recent criticism that I find slightly disingenuous. This is the part of the speech that seems to be getting the most buzz:
It’s too big to succeed, so we can afford no retreads. Or nothing will change, with the same people and the same policies that got us into this status quo. Another Latin word, status quo. And it stands for, man, the middle class, every day Americans are really gettin’ taken for a ride. That’s status quo. And GOP leaders, by the way, uh, you know, the man can only ride ya’ when your back is bent, so strengthen it. Then the man can’t ride ya’, America won’t be taken for a ride because so much is at stake.
Folks on the left and right have been pointing to this as completely incomprehensible. It really isn't. If we can understand Faulkner and Joyce and William Burroughs why do we act like we can't understand Palin? And for anyone who has even the faintest understanding of Palin's political views understanding Palin's speech is a whole lot easier than understanding the lions of the English speaking literary world.

So let's take that "paragraph" phrase by phrase (keeping in mind I make no claims about the veracity of any of it or whether or not I agree):

It’s too big to succeed
Our government is too big to be effective.

so we can afford no retreads
We can't keep doing the same thing.

Or nothing will change, with the same people and the same policies that got us into this status quo. 
Again, we can't keep doing the same thing.

Another Latin word, status quo. And it stands for, man, the middle class, every day Americans are really gettin’ taken for a ride. That’s status quo.
The system is rigged against the middle class.

And GOP leaders, by the way, uh, you know, the man can only ride ya’ when your back is bent
Telling GOP leaders that if they had resolve, the man (aka big government/Democrats) couldn't take advantage of them.

so strengthen it. Then the man can’t ride ya’,
An exhortation to strengthen their resolve.

America won’t be taken for a ride because so much is at stake.
We won't let this happen because too much is at stake.

This might be the most political thing I will say: Sarah Palin isn't the only American whose grammar and syntax sound like this. And I'm not talking ideology or even intelligence. We hear it in wedding toasts, we hear it in sales pitches, we hear it in man-on-the street TV interviews. I'm not suggesting the world should be a grammatical free for all. Let's just quit pretending that we don't understand it.

9 comments:

  1. I don't agree with Palin's politics, but I think there are people who just enjoy making her a target regardless of what she does. The conventional wisdom is that she's dumb, so people just go looking for evidence to support that premise, whether it's legit evidence or not. As for the speech excerpt, the status quo part is a little garbled--I though at first she was trying to explain what the phrase status quo means, rather than what the status quo is today. A second quick read cleared it up, though. If the speech was extemporaneous, I would expect that kind of garbling.

    I do get exasperated with the argument that our grammar and usage need to be perfect because we risk misunderstanding. Most common errors don't cause misunderstanding. There are good reasons to learn standard grammar and usage, but avoiding misunderstanding isn't at the top of the list for me. Sometimes grammatical errors are even a good thing. I grew up speaking a dialect that was rife with double negatives. I don't use them much now in my day-to-day speech, but avoiding them entirely makes me sound prissy when I'm back home.

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  2. Thank u....it had to be said (no pun intended :) I was shocked that she was on national ticket. I'm not being political here when I say...I understood her on the first hearing. And yes...most folks probably did also, including all the news folks who used it as their soundbite. U do say what needs to be said by pointing this out.
    I understood Proust and Palin. Well after some kind soul translated Proust. Thanks for writing this, the obvious sometimes needs to be flagged up for us. Quinn

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  3. Such a great post. I totally agree that it really isn't difficult to understand. (Like you, I say this with the provision that I'm making "no claims about the veracity of any of the speech or whether or not I agree.")

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  4. "Read my lips: no new taxes." When politicians speak clearly they can be held accountable. Or mocked.

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  5. The message was not lost on me. I totally get it. If the message had been given from the opposite side of the political fence, there would be no complaints about what she said or how she said it.

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  6. Ha, great observation and breaking down of her language. Now do it with Faulkner!

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  7. I think people pretend to understand, or misunderstand, what they choose. My understanding doesn't seem to have much basis on fact, anymore. I can hardly watch the news, or American news anyway, for the slant which is put on every single issue. It's either depressingly hopeless, or violent, and I can't go to bed after watching an hour of that. Better to get blips from the Guardian, in my opinion, which seem both grammatical and independent.

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  8. I could not understand a single word of what she said (am neither American nor English) ! Thanks for the explanation.

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