Sep 15, 2011

Gillard, grammar and the language of politics

Lauren Gawne unpacks the criticism of Julia Gillard's use of language and finds that it's all just hot air.

Julia Gillard Lauren Gawne writes: Jacqueline Maley's recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald takes Julia Gillard to task. Not for any of the policies of her government, nor for her failing to invite Jacqueline to her upcoming 50th birthday party, but because of the way she speaks.
The Prime Minister seems to have a profoundly uneasy relationship with the English language.
Gillard obfuscates when she should illuminate, uses many words when a few would do, and confuses messages so badly that voters would be forgiven for thinking she's deliberately trying to mess with their heads.
Here's Jacqueline's assessment of Julia Gillard's use of some elements of English.
[Gillard] ends sentences with prepositions (''I explained that we had a High Court case that we were working through our response to,'' she told journalists last week), speaks in the passive voice and uses multiple subjunctive clauses, which tend to bloat her speech. She has a habit of doubling her adverbs – using two when one, or none, would do.
There are four accusations here – ending sentences with prepositions, speaking in the passive voice, using subjunctives and using too many adverbs – so let's work through them one by one. First of all, prepositions. Let's start by looking at the specific example given:
I explained that we had a High Court case that we were working through our response to.
Yup, that's got a preposition at the end. But what would be a better alternative? I explained that we had a High Court case to which we were working through our response or I explained that we have a High Court case, our response to which we are still working through or even worse I explained that we have a High Court case, through our response to which we are still working All three are still very hard to parse, and also leave clunky elements. These kinds of sentences are hard to string together on the fly, and on the whole I think Gillard's sentence is certainly not the worst. Even if it were, a preposition hanging out at the end of the sentence isn't the end of the world. It’s only a crime if you believe in the kind of copy editing rules that were started 400 years ago when people like John Dryden took Latin as a benchmark. English speakers have been leaving prepositions at the ends of sentences, especially spoken ones, for time immemorial, and on the whole will continue to do so. Next, Maley accuses Gillard of "passive voice". This sounds like a terrible, terrible linguistic faux pas— if only we knew exactly what the accusation meant. In linguistics, passive voice means that you take a sentence with both a subject and an object, and you move the object into the subject position. The subject can be expressed in a 'by' phrase, or just left out altogether. So to give an example, 'I ate the cake' becomes 'the cake was eaten (by me)'. Politicians are accused of using these structures to side-step their role in something not nice – 'the asylum seekers were detained' rather than 'we detained the asylum seekers' – but the rest of us use these structures all the time too, and I'm willing to wager money that Julia Gillard uses this type of passive to about the same degree as every other pollie, and they all probably use it to about the same degree as the rest of us. There's no use moaning too much about passives; as has been pointed out on Language Log many times (see here for an excellent overview), those who criticise the use of passive voice tend to use it the most. Having said that, I think it's unlikely that grammatical passives are what Maley is referring to. There are a few other things people like to throw under the broad category of passive – usually hedging by saying things like 'It has been suggested that' and 'the polls have indicated that'. First of all, these aren't technically passives, and secondly, hedging is a natural part of human discourse and when you're cooperatively and delicately working on something as complex as a major policy then you have a lot of toes to avoid stepping on. Third, the subjunctive. Again, this sounds very grammatical, and therefore very serious, but actually it’s kind of trivial. The subjunctive is a type of sentence where you talk about something that may happen but hasn't happened yet. Sometimes you'll notice it because people will say 'If I were going on holiday, I would send you a postcard' but some people just say 'If I was going on holiday, I would send you a postcard' like any other sentence. In fact, the majority of people would never use the subjunctive, and if they did it's likely that they do so because they think "were" sounds more fancy that "was" in contexts like above, or just because they think of themselves as more educated than others who don’t use the subjunctive. The subjunctive therefore is more like a modern shibboleth. Besides, I would like to think that even the least proactive leaders would talk a lot about future things that haven't happened yet, so they should use the subjunctive quite a bit. Of course, that's what I mean by subjunctive, and that's more or less the definition any linguist will give you. But since Maley doesn't give any examples of Gillard's use of the subjunctive, one can never really be sure if this is what she means. Maybe for Maley it's just another synonym for waffle. Finally, adverbs. Those pesky adverbs. They're those hard to pin down ones from when you learned grammar and don't they sound scary! I personally don't have a problem with doubled adverbs, especially when they both give different shades of meaning. When Gillard says she will examine something 'appropriately and carefully' (Maley's example) I take great comfort in knowing that she will do it carefully, but it'd be terrible for the Prime Minister to waste her time examining things with care if it was done inappropriately. Doubling is a common rhetorical device; it's good for adding emphasis and a bit of drama – it's generally there to clarify and to provide more specific information, not to obfuscate as Maley claims. Maley also accuses Gillard of being dull and waffly while talking policy, which she thinks is a terrible thing as Julia has shown at other times that she's got a great speaking style. Sure, Julia might have a razor-sharp wit perfect to keep people from nodding off at a glitzy function on the Hill, but no one wants to hear the leader of their country being "witty and tinder-dry" (Maley's words) when discussing the status of refugees or carbon tax. There is a reason political rhetoric so often falls into seriousness, and that is because these matters are serious. No one wants Julia's policy on obesity and health-care to be 'don't eat crap'; it was flippancy after all that killed Alexander Downer's prime ministerial aspirations. Gillard's use of rhetoric to avoid giving direct answers to questions is right in line with all politicians – in fact, quite a few of them probably do it a lot less subtly. Any use of particular grammatical and syntactic constructions or word choice and failure to abide by fictitious stylistic guidelines of English oratory are irrelevant to this; if a politician wants to obfuscate the truth in an issue or avoid answering a question, they'll do so. If Maley can judiciously quote from Julia Gillard to show her to be a bad communicator, let's look at Tony Abbot in an interview with Tom Elliott on 3AW on the 14th of September. Sure, he doesn't use subjunctives, adverbs, dangling prepositions or any of the constructions Maley accuses Gillard of using, but this doesn't prevent him from side-stepping the actual question with delightful finesse:
Tom Elliott: Now, we know that the Government with the support of the Greens and the independents probably has the numbers just to pass all this [carbon tax] legislation. Do you think there’s any chance over the next week or so someone might cross the floor or change their mind? Tony Abbott: Well, let’s wait and see, Tom. All I know is that this is going to be very bad for jobs in manufacturing.
We could selectively quote people and hurl around unsubstantiated claims all day – or we could actually just pay attention to what the message is. People should stop being so scared of grammar – in this post alone I've used all of the constructions Maley criticises Gillard for using, and the fact that you're still reading probably means it didn't bother you much. Poor Julia; she copped it from all sides at the start because she didn't speak enough like a politician, or at least enough like a female politician should (see here for a discussion) – and now she's being accused of sounding too much like a pollie. In a world where every speech of every politician can now be analysed ad nauseam, some people just can't catch a break. Lauren Gawne is a linguistics PhD candidate who loses no sleep over people leaving prepositions dangling at the ends of sentences. She regularly writes about language at Superlinguo.

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31 thoughts on “Gillard, grammar and the language of politics

  1. LANGUAGE: Gillard, grammar and the language of politics « Indaily's Blog

    […] the rest of this article at Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog […]

  2. Stephanie Bone

    The most obvious issue in the article – in the hard copy at least, it has been corrected online – was that adverbs were incorrectly labelled as adjectives. Otherwise an entertaining article, perhaps not quite up to Ms Maley’s usual high standard.

  3. Kevin Herbert

    Jacqueline Maley’s written a tongue in cheek colour piece, and Crikey have gotten a linguistics PhD student to write a serious critique of it.

    And then posters are taking potshots at both articles….this parallel universe material.

    Get over it…all of you.

  4. Socratease

    Gillard obfuscates when she should illuminate, uses many words when a few would do, and confuses messages so badly that voters would be forgiven for thinking she’s deliberately trying to mess with their heads.

    In the above quote, substitute “Rudd” for “Gillard” and “he” for “she” and we could be back in 2010.

    Plus ça change.

  5. Peter Ormonde

    Yes Julia has an awful accent – but it has deep roots. Not put on. Not artificial. She’s always talked like that. I blame the water in Adelaide.

    The one redeeming feature is that she has not succumbed to mandarin jargonising … or at least lapses into it only rarely. You know, those appalling strings of jibberish apparently devoid of verbs consisting of weasel words and abstract nouns and administrative detail dancing around something to say: “In the fullness of time, when it seems appropriate, we will give due consideration to making a final determination of the overall course of the matter going forward”.

    This disorder comes from spending far far too much time in the company of public servants and – even worse – listening to them. It also means you have lost sight of what you are doing, who you are talking to and why.

    If Rudd had not been ceasared, I would have dispatched him myself. Kevin was – at best- a very capable public servant. I’m not sure he was much of a politician but.

    So I will endure the grating grammar and suffer the odd hanging preposition, just to have some notion of what the woman actually means to say.

  6. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

    […] pointed out the jam that President Obama is apparently giving us today. Fully (sic) also got into the grammar and language of politics, while Freakonomics watched political party word […]

  7. Kealey and Haines

    I wrote the following to Ms Maley, about some of the language problems in her article.

    The Economist Style Guide is available here as a PDF:, and Orwell’s Essay is here:

    Dear Mrs Maley,

    Bad English is spread by imitation.

    I’ve read your piece titled “When in public, Gillard is not at home with the lingo”, and noted stale phrases, cliches and dying metaphors.

    As a political journalist, it is your concern to write clearly. You influence the way your readers think about politics.

    The Economist Style says,
    “One weakness of journalists who on daily newspapers may plead that they have little time to search for the apposite word, is a love of the ready-made, seventhhand phrase.”

    If a figure of speech adds no clarity or descriptive force to your writing, do not use it.

    Take Orwell’s advice:
    “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

    I don’t mean to be impolite or malicious because I enjoy your writing,

    Peter Monaghan

    “…edged ever-so-slightly with bemusement.”

    Ever-so-slightly – a trite expression; overused

    Bemusement – incorrect word usage. Bemusement does not mean amusement. It means“slightly confused.”

    “But to really capture a character, real or fictional, you have to nail her language – the way she speaks and the words she chooses.”

    Really – an empty intensifier. If you remove the word, the meaning of the sentence is unchanged.
    Nail her language – a dying metaphor. Does it evoke a vivid image? If not use an ordinary word rather than a figure of speech.

    “And to nail Gillard’s language is difficult, if not impossible, because Gillard hasn’t yet nailed it

    Difficult, if not impossible – vague and imprecise.

    “Speaking off the cuff or in a more casual forum such as the National Press Club, she is witty and
    tinder-dry, perfectly able to talk plainly.”

    Off-the-cuff – cliché,

    perfectly – empty intensifier

    “But put the Prime Minister in front of a press conference or, heaven forbid, give her a policy
    speech to deliver…”

    heaven forbid – cliche

    “…voters would be forgiven for thinking she’s deliberately trying to mess with their heads.”

    Mess with their heads – cliche

    “She has a habit of doubling her adverbs – using two when one, or none, would do.”

    Has a habit – unnecessary, vague. “She doubles her adverbs” is better.

    “…examines policy issues…”

    policy issues – political jargon.

    “… she needed to claw back ground and convince voters she was in control.”

    Claw back ground – dying metaphor

    “At the end of it we were none the wiser”

    None the wiser – cliche

    “as to what that vision was.”

    As to what – wordy phrase.

    “…voters can smell a mile off.”

    Smell a mile off – cliche

    “The terrible waste is that Gillard can in fact speak wonderfully.”

    Terrible waste – trite phrase

    “…on some of the few occasions when Gillard has managed to cut the bluster
    and talk in short sentences, she has said things which have left a negative lasting impression.”

    Cut the bluster – dying metaphor

    Lasting impression – trite phrase

    “…doesn’t bear repeating.”

    Bear repeating – cliche

    “Don Watson wrote that politics is a war fought with words, and if that’s the case, Gillard needs to
    build her arsenal. With her approval ratings in free fall and a voting public increasingly alienated
    from her, straight talking has never been more important than it is now.”

    If that’s the case – a wordy phrase, “Politics is a war fought with words, and Gillard needs to build her arsenal” is better.

    Free fall – dying metaphor.

  8. Angra

    Oh, and if some unbelievers don’t believe Tok Pisin is a worthy vehicle for literature I urge you to check out the latest prize for indigenous talent for PNG writers – The Crocodile Prize.

  9. Angra

    Come on Aidan – you can’t criticise Graves for his command of the English language. He’s f***ing brilliant and one of the stalwart sources for English literature teaching.

    May I just quote this gem? Just think about the decline of punctuation in poetry and literature during the 20th C


    Leaving the Rest Unsaid

    Finis, apparent on an earlier page,
    With fallen obelisk for colophon,
    Must this be here repeated?

    Death has been ruefully announced
    And to die once is death enough,
    Be sure, for any life-time.

    Must the book end, as you would end it,
    With testamentary appendices
    And graveyard indices?

    But no, I will not lay me down
    To let your tearful music mar
    The decent mystery of my progress.

    So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
    Rising in air as on a gander’s wing
    At a carelss comma,

  10. Angra

    A. N. Onymus – welkom, yu tok save tumas! Mi laikim yu tru.

    Moresby and Simbu mainly, but quite a few other places as well. I have family in Banz!

  11. A. N. Onymus


    Having just posted my comment, the page refreshed with your 3:31 pm comment.

    I was on Karkar Island, at Banz in the Western Highlands, and in the Lae area. Where were you in PNG?

  12. A. N. Onymus

    Angra (September 16 at 11:20 am),

    I can relate to your reactions on arriving here from overseas. I was born in the midwest of the U.S.A. and (as a newly-graduated English teacher) went to New Guinea, where I worked and lived with Australians (and Canadians and Germans).

    Coming from America, where residents of different locations had different accents (e.g. Bronx, deep South, etc), I did not notice this in the Australians I met. Rather than having different accents, they used different terminology/words (e.g. togs, bathers, costume).

    After several years in New Guinea, I came to Australia. My late husband and I settled in rural north Queensland. Here I noticed things that I had not heard in New Guinea (perhaps the location thing again? no one I had met in New Guinea was from this area?).

    One was the habit of ending a sentence with “but” (e.g. “It’s a nice day, but.”). I waited in vain for the remainder of the sentence. Eventually I realised that was the end and bit my tongue, refraining from saying “but what?”

    The other was word order in sentences like “He married the girl Jones.” Normally the adjective precedes the noun — one does not usually say, “He is bouncing the ball rubber” or “She goes the school primary on Queen Street.”

    I can’t answer your “Why is it so?” I can only add these experiences to that question!

  13. Angra

    So parse this –

    Nokan mekim kain tok olsem!

  14. Michael Nolan

    Yes, I agree with Lauren’s rebuttal of that rather stiff appraisal of the PM’s speech. I think what some of us pine for from Gillard and her colleagues on all sides is a more direct and lively style. Not Rudd’s faux folksiness, mind (faulksy?). But compare Democrat Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in The Atlantic (from Crikey’s Politics links today): ‘I grew up hanging on to the edge of the middle class by my fingernails. All I can say is I’ve been there. I’ve lived this. My family lived one pink slip, one bad diagnosis away from falling off the economic cliff. Yeah, I’ve got a fancy job at Harvard and I’ve gotta tell you, I’m proud of that job. I worked hard to get there. I wasn’t born at Harvard. I was born to a family that had to work for everything it’s got.’ Simple, direct language, with some life to it. In five words — ‘I wasn’t born at Harvard’ — she communicates a great deal. That’d be refreshing here.

  15. Angra

    Sometimes the Myth is better than the Miss.

    As in Doctor at Large

    Doctor – Big breaths Gloria.

    Gloria – Yeth, and I’m only thixteen!

  16. Angra

    Aidan – OK if Churchill’s quote is an urban myth, how about Beavis and Butthead?

    Agent Bork: Chief, you know that guy whose camper they were whacking off in?
    Agent Fleming: Bork, you’re a Federal Agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
    Agent Bork: Oh, uh… You know that guy in whose camper they… I mean, that guy off in whose camper they were whacking?

  17. calyptorhynchus

    any of his works

  18. calyptorhynchus

    Aidan Wilson: “Graves clearly didn’t know about the clear distinction between written and spoken language and Asquith was probably an excellent memoriser.”

    I think Graves was a little smarter than you are, have you actually read of his works on language?

  19. JMNO

    Have any of you read the book by American linguist, Deborah Tannen, ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation’? It looks at how and why men and women communication differently and how each gender’s communication is perceived

  20. Aidan Wilson

    Stephen, the point of Lauren’s post isn’t to defend Gillard’s style of oratory; there are probably many things one could reasonably criticise. The point is to ensure that those criticisms aren’t based on a misunderstanding of what grammar actually is and why these things are not incorrect but also widespread for most politicians, most Australians and even most English speakers.

    Angra, you’ve misquoted (and besides, Churchill himself never said it, but a staffer). Apparently a memo got passed around which had a stranded preposition, causing another staffer to correct it, causing the originator (apparently) to scribble ‘offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put’.

    Your questions about Australian English probably would be best addressed in another post, though feel free to search the archives as many comment threads have been derailed into discussions on some aspects of Australian English. Not sure if high-rising terminal (upward inflection at the end of clauses) is one of them, nor t-flapping (when it sounds *like* a ‘d’ (but really isn’t)). So maybe we’ll think about putting this into a new post.

    Calyptorhynchus: Graves clearly didn’t know about the clear distinction between written and spoken language and Asquith was probably an excellent memoriser. The fact is that we all use stranded prepositions (despite probably claiming that we don’t) passive and adverbs (subjunctives probably not, but that’s because they’ve barely existed in English for 400 years), so ripping on a particular politician for doing so shows that we have double standards and unreasonable expectations.

  21. michael r james

    Stephen at 10.24 am.
    “It’s about her entire tone of communication and expression.”

    Exactly. This article and almost all the comments are way beside the point. Even if one thinks well of Gillard hearing her is extraordinarily painful–almost fingernails on a blackboard. If you are not inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, it is disastrous as you turn off listening to any content. It is simultaneously hectoring, patronizing and bullying. This is not a leader, or even a forceful lawyer but a third grade teacher telling her charges what is the law.

    They say that Maggie Thatcher had voice coaching –I can’t say I noticed, but it must have been unbearable before I arrived there in 1980. She too had the terrible patronizing schoolmarm tone but a certain kind of Brit like that. Australians hate it.
    The French Socialists just finished their first TV debate and they are saying that Francois Hollande (ex Mr Sego, and top polling to beat Sarko, hah!) has transformed–lost weight, got a permatan, AND has had voice-coaching, perhaps dropping half an octave and sounding presidential.

    Gillard desperately needs voice coaching. The government has a huge agenda and lots to both explain and to convince, and as the program works its way thru Parliament, lots to boast about. None of it will matter as long as she continues to speak like this. She needs to regain a conversational and “normal” tone.

  22. calyptorhynchus

    Robert Graves, writing in the 1940s about the speeches of British politicians, stated that Asquith (forced from office 1916) was the last British politicians whose speeches could be transcribed and printed and would read as decent English prose.

    Something about modernity and truth, methinks.

  23. Angra

    As Churchill ironically said – “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

    However as someone who grew up across the ocean in blighty, I have a couple of queries about the Aussie accent that seems strange when you first come to live here.

    One is the progressive degeneration of ‘t’ sounds to ‘d’ at the end of words But this isn’t a consistent pattern. ‘Consequently’ seems to retains its ‘t’, whereas ‘beautiful’ becomes ‘beaudiful’. Gillard does this – but then so do most Australians.

    Another is why there is so often an upward inflection at the end of sentences, even when they aren’t questions. One answer given to me by a feminist was that it is because Australian women in particular are uncertain about making direct statements in the presence of dominating menfolk and feel the need to unconsciously seek approval with the upward inflection. A bit far-fetched.

    Why is it so?

  24. Stephen

    Maley was not so much wrong, as wide of the mark. The problem with Gillard’s speech is much more lethal than picayune grammatical niceties, which nobody in Mt Isa or Mukinbudin a stuff could give about. It’s about her entire tone of communication and expression. For all her best efforts, she seems to find it impossible to speak warmly and naturally to her fellow-Australians as equals. Thus, she comes across rather like a bossy middle-school principal, and it’s not helped at all by her weirdly computerised Welsh Unionist (?) accent. The press goes on about how natural and witty Gillard was at the mindwinter ball, but it’s no use if she can’t do it in broad daylight in Broadmeadows. She, unfortunately, makes John Howard sound Churchillian in his eloquence.

  25. Captain Planet

    LOL at “cooperatively and delicately”

  26. Captain Planet

    when you’re cooperatively and delicately working on something as complex as a major policy then you have a lot of toes to avoid stepping on.

    A lot of toes on which to avoid stepping, Lauren. 🙂

  27. Fran Barlow

    Thanks Lauren … I agree. It’s certainly possible to make a fetish out of features of syntax and to forget that language is a tool for effecting a meeting of the minds. If one is to be critical of someone’s use of language then one ought, in my opinion, to begin with the efficiency and elegance with which that objective is realised.

    Speaking to a single person is always a great deal easier than speaking to a large and diverse number of people, because each of them brings a distinct set of cultural accoutrments to their participation as an audience. Inevitably, what for some seems clear and elegant is noise for others.

    I must confess that I am not an admirer of Gillard’s use of language, but I suspect that my objections at what she seems to be claiming about the world substantially prejudices my reading of her words. Her cadences seem much the worse for her pandering to reactionaries. The cadences of Bob Brown are probably not greatly different, yet they seem almost pleasing. Bob Dylan was not a great vocalist, but somehow, he always struck the right note.

    That said, if Bob Brown, like Gillard and Swan, said “particuly” and “inferstruckcher” I’d probably start to bristle.

  28. jonah Stiffhausen

    She speaks like an oik for some reason. Those who went to school with her in Adelaide insist she didn’t sound like it then. They say she cultivated the absurd sounds whilst working for the legal leeches, Slater & Gordon. She obviously did it to try and “relate” to her working class victims, er, clients and electorate.
    Plays havoc with my lug’oles.

  29. Aidan Wilson

    ↑ Another excellent example of how you can be completely incomprehensible without breaking any of these grammatical ‘rules’.

  30. shepherdmarilyn

    And of course she thinks those brown people are all so uneducated they can’t read that devastating high court decision that shuts them all out of the dirty money pool.

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