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Those who say

political wordsThis is the first in an ongoing series of posts about political language, its use and abuse in American politics of the new century – and the way so many of us misunderstand each other and talk at cross purposes. It will continue here, periodically, in the months to come.

When it comes to a particular statement, saying, formulation – who says so?

I try, mostly, in this collection to attribute statements, not with the idea of taking aim at anyone in particular but as verification that, yes, people are saying these things.

Take the often-used cluster of phrases concerning speakers “who say,” with variations including “people who say” or “those who say.”

It’s a common usage, because it allows the speaker to elide any specific person and either to invent a phony boogeyman or, often, to recast an argument into a form more easily knocked down. The usage isn’t necessarily dishonest, but it easily and often slides there.

In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George H.W. Bush remarked, “There are those who say that now we can turn away from the world, that we have no special role, no special place. But we are the United States of America, the leader of the West that has become the leader of the world.” But exactly who said we “we can turn away from the world,” that “we have no special role, no special place”? Did anyone?

In a country of hundreds of millions of people, someone may have. But that sentiment surely was not widespread, or at least would not be put in the way he put it.

A logician would call this a straw man argument – an argument made of straw so as to be easy (and safe) to demolish. As Wikipedia put it, “is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be ‘attacking a straw man’. The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and the subsequent refutation of that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the opponent’s proposition.”

There are a lot of straw men in our political arguments. In these discussions of words, quotes from particular people are included not as attacks on the person but as verification that what we’re reacting to here is something real – an actual use of the words, not a straw man.

There is another aspect to the “some people who” formulation: “Some people that.”

In his New York Times column, Frank Bruni [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/opinion/what-happened-to-who.html?_r=0] noted that during the Republican presidential debates of 2016, the hazy formulation of who “was being exiled from its rightful habitat. It was a linguistic bonobo: endangered, possibly en route to extinction. Instead of saying ‘people who,’ Donald Trump said ‘people that.’ Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was ‘that’-ing when he should have been ‘who’-ing.” Bush, he noted, referred to “people that come with a legal visa and overstay,” and Rudio spoke of “people that call my office.”

Is this a problem? Actually, it is, because this is a matter of referring to people not as people, but as things. Things can be throw in the garbage, dismissed, tossed overboard. People – one would think – should not.

One web site breaks it down this way:

Here’s the thing: “who” (and its forms) refers to peo­ple. “That” usu­ally refers to things, but it can refer to peo­ple in a gen­eral sense (like a class or type of per­son: see “run­ner.”). Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “When refer­ring to peo­ple, both that and who can be used in infor­mal lan­guage. ‘That’ may be used to refer to the char­ac­ter­is­tics or abil­i­ties of an indi­vid­ual or a group of peo­ple.… However, when speak­ing about a par­tic­u­lar per­son in for­mal lan­guage, who is preferred.”

That said, many peo­ple and some respected ref­er­ences pre­fer “peo­ple that,” and it’s not wrong. Think Chaucer. Shakespeare. Dickens.

How is “people that” meant – in archaic fashion, sloppy fashion, or anti-human fashion? This may be more an argument for avoiding its use, than for sharply adjudging those who use it.

Words matter.

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