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Sep 15, 2011

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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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