Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Problem with Pronouns or You Didn't Build What?

As the "you didn't build that" debate continues, Romney and his supporters are staging a number of rallies titled "We Did Build This."  Admittedly, I am not the resident grammarian on this blog, but as a continuation of my post yesterday regarding my complete confusion that it's not okay to say the government built the internet when it did, I want to talk about pronouns.


Namely the pronouns "that" and "this."  So we'll start with the President.  The quote that's been bandied about is as follows: "If you got a business, you didn't build that."  Pitchforks and socialist recriminations have ensued, but what's plain to see if you read the fuller quote is that the quote above is taken out of context.  Here's the full quote:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
In other words, the President wasn't saying that the "that" is "a business," but rather that the "that" are "roads and bridges." Quite an inopportune moment for a great orator to have pronoun confusion, but I think we can all agree that business owner A didn't build road B or bridge C. That's the work of a government based on priorities vetted by a community or its elected representatives.  But that's not how the quote is being received by people or how the Romney campaign is talking about it.


No, the Romney campaign is twisting it around to imply that the "that" meant "a business" and we're hearing that message back from Romney backers.  Take this quote from Melissa Ball, a business owner at a "We Did Build This" rally in Richmond, VA, “President Obama is wrong. Americans do build their own business and we need a president who believes that as well.” Oh pronouns! Why do you spite us so? Clearly the name of the rally is meant to imply, incorrectly that the "that" Obama spoke of was "a business" because the rally's "this" is clearly intended to mean "business."


And so now we're down the rabbit hole and the light is fading.  President Obama never said people don't build their own businesses, just that they don't build the roads or bridges that grease the gears of our economic machine. It's disappointing to see Romney's campaign embrace the wrong contextual appearance of the president's comments, but it is campaign season and recriminations abound on both sides.  So I guess I'll just have to me mad a pronouns that betray the American people. I hate them...Wait, maybe I said that wrong.

UPDATED: Damn you Jon Stewart! The Daily Show talks pronouns and context. This is what I get for going to bed early!



7 comments:

Colin said...

This is some pretty impressive spin.

First off, if President Obama was referring to the plural "roads and bridges" instead of the singular "business," then why did he use the singular pronoun "that" instead of the plural "those"? Reading his comments in grammatically correct fashion, one must conclude he was referring to a business. In addition, given that this appeared to be a prepared speech instead of off the cuff remarks, it's much more likely his word choice was deliberate rather than inadvertent.

Further straining the credulity of your explanation is that it is far from obvious what having a business has to do with roads and bridges. Why mention it at all? It's completely extraneous/irrelevant in your interpretation. If he really meant that the construction of roads and bridges was a government/collective enterprise, he could have more easily made his point by simply saying:

"Somebody invested in roads and bridges. You didn’t build those."

Heck, even then it's still weird because, in fact, both individuals and people with businesses did help build them through their taxes. Thus, an even better formulation if Obama was trying to make the point you claim would have been something like:

"Somebody invested in roads and bridges. You didn’t build those *on your own*."

Both the context and the grammar suggest that this is more than just pronoun confusion.

Jason said...

I 100% agree the point could have been made more effectively. It was an awkward and grammatically incorrect turn of phrase. I see no reason to suggest that there "is more than just pronoun confusion" in the President's remarks.

Are you suggesting Obama is a socialist or a marxist? Or that he has it in for business?

Colin said...

I see no reason to suggest that there "is more than just pronoun confusion" in the President's remarks.

How about because it is the most logical explanation given both the grammar and the context? Again, why mention the bit about having a business if the point was simply that we don't build roads and bridges on our own? What does owning a business have to do with anything?

Are you suggesting Obama is a socialist or a marxist? Or that he has it in for business?

I don't pretend to know what animates this man.

Jason said...

"What does owning a business have to do with anything?"

Seems to me there's a pretty good debate going in this election about the role of government in this country and how that role relates to business.

"I don't pretend to know what animates the man."

And yet you believe "the grammar suggest that this is more than pronoun confusion." You portend that there is "more than just pronoun confusion" and I'd like to know what you think the "more" is.

Colin said...

Seems to me there's a pretty good debate going in this election about the role of government in this country and how that role relates to business.

OK, let's assume you are correct. If Obama simply mixed his pronouns up, then what he meant to say was, "If you've got a business, you didn't build those roads and bridges."

That's a complete non-sequitur and nonsensical.

On the other hand, however, if you take his statement to mean, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that business" it makes sense, especially considering his earlier remarks which downplayed the role of individual initiative and intelligence in determining success:

Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

Therefore it's pretty safe to assume your interpretation -- which is same as the Obama campaign's spin -- is wrong.

You portend that there is "more than just pronoun confusion" and I'd like to know what you think the "more" is.

Well, yes. Given that the pronoun confusion explanation makes no sense, plainly the president must have meant something else. What exactly that some else is, I don't know.

I'm simply going on the words he used and the context in which they were used. You are the one pretending that you have a direct line to his brain and what he actually meant, not me.

Jason said...

Therefore it's pretty safe to assume your interpretation -- which is same as the Obama campaign's spin -- is wrong.

Except that immediately following saying "you didn't build that" the president continued, "[t]he point is that when we succeed we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together."

Or if you aren't convinced on what the president's point was from that quote we can always go to the ad he released further outlining what he meant.

I'm taking the rather benign view of this, while you seem to imply it is something more malignant or nefarious, despite evidence that it all is pretty benign. But perhaps more to the point, how is any of this controversial?

Colin said...

Except that immediately following saying "you didn't build that" the president continued, "[t]he point is that when we succeed we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together."

And if President Obama had claimed that what he meant to say was "If you've got a business, you didn't build that *on your own*" then that subsequent piece about doing things together would certainly buttress his claim.

But instead we have this claim that what he meant was "If you've got a business, you didn't build those roads and bridges" -- which makes no sense.

Or if you aren't convinced on what the president's point was from that quote we can always go to the ad he released further outlining what he meant.

Oh, a campaign ad? Well that solves it. I assume that next time Mitt Romney says something stupid or controversial, or seeks to explain/clarify something with a campaign ad, you'll be similarly convinced?

I'm taking the rather benign view of this, while you seem to imply it is something more malignant or nefarious, despite evidence that it all is pretty benign.

The difference is that my interpretation (that he meant something other than roads and bridges) makes sense, while the notion he meant to say "If you've got a business, you didn't build those roads and bridges" doesn't. It's gibberish without any clear linkage.

I can believe that Obama was trying to say something about businesses not succeeding on their own. I am not at all convinced that by "that" he was referring to roads and bridges.

But perhaps more to the point, how is any of this controversial?

If we take the interpretation that Obama meant to say that people don't build businesses on their own, it's not controversial at all. In fact, much like with Elizabeth Warren's rant, it's a banal statement masquerading as something profound.

Much more disturbing to me was the overall tone and message of the speech, which has been effectively dissected here and here.