The Language of Evasion

by Steven Yoder

January 19, 2004


People who care about language -- editors, writers, and teachers among them -- can sometimes seem a picayune bunch. Their focus on proper grammar and use of words appear petty in light of, for example, the threats that humanity will face in this century. What do misplaced commas and misspelled words matter at a time when we are altering Earth's climate and India and Pakistan flirt intermittently with holocaust?

That's a point well taken when the errors are truly minor. But in many cases, incorrect and imprecise language at best masks unclear thought; at worst, it's a weapon in the arsenal of those who seek to deceive and manipulate.

Orwell put it best in 1946 in Politics and the English Language: "Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness."

If Orwell is right, when our leaders are careless with language, they deserve not our condescension, but our close attention.

A Curious Incoherence

Since last June, White House officials often have exhibited an odd inability to use proper English in answering questions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Their troubles are less obvious when you listen to them in person: they often manage to look and sound convincing (or at least convinced). But read their replies in print and you'll find their command of the language unraveling.

Of course, the President's own verbal confusion has spawned a cottage industry of Bush quotation books, calendars, notepads, websites, and e-mail alerts. That might be why no one blinked when in July 2003, speaking about why the dubious uranium claim was in his State of the Union speech, the President jammed his weapon trying to reload: "But when I gave the -- when they talked about the speech and when they looked at the speech, it was cleared." (1)

But as the questions got harder to answer last summer, Presidential foot-in-mouth disease became contagious. On June 8, Condoleezza Rice, reportedly teased at the White House for her serial complete sentences, appeared on ABC This Week. The transcript of that interview is remarkable for the deterioration in Rice's grammar as host George Stephanopoulos turns to the topic of Iraq's weapons. For example, replying to a question about whether others in the US government knew the uranium claim was false, she produced this:
George, somebody, somebody down may have known. But I will tell you that when this issue was raised, uh, with the intelligence community, because, uh, we actually do go through the process of asking, uh, the intelligence community, can you say this? Can you say that? Can you say this? The intelligence community did not know at that time or at levels that got to us that this, that there was serious questions about this report." (2)
Then, speaking on the same topic, Dan Bartlett, White House communications director (no less), was quoted in the July 10 Washington Post saying that "There was no debate or questions with regard to that line when it was signed off on." (3)

Had subject-verb agreement become passé, a rule for regulation-prone Democrats?

Pointing out such mistakes might be niggling if they were isolated, but worse was to come. After it was revealed that both of those statements were false, and that the CIA had indeed sent a memo to the White House asking that the uranium reference be removed, Bartlett and Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy, held a press briefing. The transcript on the White House website shows them responding to the toughest questions with head-spinning replies:
Question: So you're saying mea culpa, it's not George Tenet's fault, as was indicated last week?

Bartlett: Well, we said, indicated that last what George Tenet has said and what we have given information here is that the process failed.
And later . . .
Question: Memo number one, the concerns that were raised directly and with you and Mr. Gerson [the President's speechwriter], were those concerns conveyed to the President at the time?

Hadley: No, they would not have been.

Question: Would they have been conveyed to Dr. Rice?

Hadley: No, I would have run those -- we would have -- see, when you do these clearance processes, it's sort of a paper process. People call you with their comments. There's also a process here, as I said, the experts that work these issues are working on the phones trying to come up with the language that is mutually acceptable and people are comfortable with. And that's a process that goes on. (4)
When it came to light that Rice indeed had received the memo in question, she attempted to take responsibility while evading it on the Lehrer Newshour. The show's transcript reports her mangling the recalibrated story this way: "I can tell you, I either didn't see the memo, I don't remember seeing the memo, the fact is it was a set of clearance comments, it was three and a half months before the State of the Union." (5)

As the questions continue about the doctoring of weapons-related evidence, the fractured sentences just keep coming. During a press conference on September 29, 2003, David Corn of The Nation challenged White House press secretary Scott McClellan's assertion that "We knew that Saddam Hussein had large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons" before September 11. Corn pointed out that in February 2001, Colin Powell had said that Saddam did not have unaccounted-for weapons stockpiles. McClellan countered with a non sequitur, stating that Powell had gone to the United Nations [in February 2003] and said that Saddam did have such weapons. Here's how the rest of the exchange went, according to the White House website (italics added):
Corn: No, no, he said, at that point, there weren't. The DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] produced a classified assessment in October 2002 which said: we don't have any hard or reliable information about stockpiles. And the UN inspectors, themselves, said they had no hard information about stockpiles. So where are you getting your information from?

McClellan: Again, I think you're mischaracterizing Secretary Powell's comments. Secretary Powell went before -- and he said, that I never said that he was not a threat. He went before --

Corn: --looking for WMD.

McClellan: Let me finish. Secretary Powell went before the United Nations and presented that very case to the world and made it very clear what was unaccounted for. Secretary Powell went through an exhaustive process to back up everything that he said, talking directly with members of the intelligence community. (6)
If you're confused, you aren't alone. McClellan's antecedents are unclear because he is referring to people and cases that never existed. (7)

Weaving a Tangled Web

The deterioration of the Bush team's English in the face of informed cross-examination is no mystery. Over the years, researchers have identified typical clues to deception, many of which cluster around the use of incorrect, fractured, and illogical sentences.

Stan Walters runs a company that provides interview and interrogation services and training to industry and law enforcement agencies. He notes in his book The Truth About Lying (2000) that, "People who are being deceptive have far more speech dysfunctions than people who are being truthful." One category of symptoms that he cites is "unclear line of thought." This includes omitting words or using incomplete sentences; sentence editing, in which the subject first chooses one word and then stops in mid-sentence and substitutes another; and providing indirect ideas in response to a direct question, such as expressing sentences that are incomplete and that contain unrelated or indirect ideas.

Similarly, at the 1999 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, a research team from the Smell & Taste Treatment Research Foundation reported on their assessment of 64 peer-reviewed articles and 20 books on mendacity. From these, they derived an index of 23 clinically detectable physical and verbal signs of deception. Among the verbal cues were speech errors and the increased use of verbal qualifiers or modifiers.

If you're wondering to what extent these signs show up in actual practice, the research team viewed a videotape of President Clinton's false denial to the grand jury of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. When compared with a control (a question-and-answer session by the President before a friendly crowd), the team found a 1,733-percent increase in speech errors and a 402-percent increase in the use of qualifiers and modifiers. (8)

In and of itself, of course, mistake-prone English is not proof of lying. Rather, the experts agree that it and other behaviors are indicators of deception when they represent a change in the individual's behavior. Indeed, Rice, Bartlett, McClellan, and Hadley have been well spoken in handling questions on subjects other than Iraq's weapons, as you would expect from people who spend time in the public eye. Their English became a tangled web of errors, false starts, and illogic only when they fielded questions to which the administration had not provided believable answers.

When you're busy sidestepping and backpedaling, you're bound to trip and fall. So the next time you hear a Bush official use the wrong tense, drop words, or drift into incoherence, pay attention. There's probably a good reason.

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Notes and Resources

1.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. "President Reaffirms Strong Position on Liberia." July 14, 2003 - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/07/20030714-3.html (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

2.  This Week ABC News transcript. June 8, 2003. Available from Steven Yoder or from The Transcription Company, (818) 848-6500 or www.transcripts.net.  (back)

3.  The Washington Post, July 9, 2003 - http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A35606-2003Jul9¬Found=true (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

4.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. "Press Briefing on Iraq WMD and SOTU Speech," July 22, 2003 - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/07/iraq/20030722-12.html (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

5.  Newsmaker Interview, Newshour with Jim Lehrer transcript, July 30, 2003 - http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white_house/july-dec03/rice_7-30.html (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

6.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. "Press Briefing by Scott McClellan" - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/09/20030929-7.html (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

7.  I followed up with McClellan during a live "Ask the White House" session that he hosted on the White House website to find out if he had any better explanation of what he'd meant. Wisely, he stuck to answering inquiries like this one from Bryan from Pennsylvania: "How stressful is it to be the White House Press Secretary?" McClellan: "Great question, Bryan . . ."  (back)

8.  Access Excellence, The National Health Museum. "Science of Lying," April 20, 1999 - http://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/SU/lying599.html (as of January 9, 2004).  (back)

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Steven Yoder is a freelance writer and editor from Willow, New York. During the 2000 Presidential campaign, he created and operated voteexchange.org. This is Yoder's first contribution to Swans.

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Published January 19, 2004
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