Saturday, May 31, 2008

McCain Team Unafraid of Grammar

On the hustings, Sen. McCain recently boasted that troops in Iraq had been drawn down to pre-surge levels.  They have not.  When confronted with his misrepresentation of the facts, McCain simply denied that he had made a mistake.  (Why?  Maybe he is afraid people will call him senile -- or maybe he's just another GOPer who doesn't want to be troubled by facts).

Confusion about troop levels does nothing to bolster our confidence in the mastery of military policy which is supposedly McCain's advantage in the coming race.  But far more serious, for our money, is his claim at the same conference that "things are quiet" in Mosul, on a day when suicide bombers killed 30 people.  It smacks of the claim that war is peace.

McCain's staff mounted a spirited and creative defense.  Advisor Randy Scheunemann told reporters it was all a question of "semantics," and said that "if you're going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we're going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign."

An excellent idea, and we thank Mr. Scheunemann for volunteering to undertake monitor duty.  Because, as our old Latin teacher was at pains to make us understand, verb tenses actually make a difference in the meaning of a sentence.  "I am old" is a rather different thing than "I will be old," for example.  (And we thank Mr. Scheunemann for his observation that Sen. Obama is apparently confused about the number of states in the Union.)

Nonetheless, we at the Egg are concerned that McCain's team does not seem to grasp the distinctions among grammar (the rules that govern meaning in a language), semantics (the study of how meaning is communicated) and facts (the actual things that are meant).  McCain's initial error was one of fact, not of grammar:  155,000 American soldiers risking their lives in Iraq today is demonstrably not fewer than the 130,000 who did do before the surge.  He apparently attempted to argue that the error was a grammatical one, because the number of soldiers may someday -- perhaps even in July -- be smaller than it is now.  And his advisors seem to believe that the press has committed a semantic error by failing to conflate the present indicative and future subjunctive.

It is possible that McCain and his team are correct here.  It simply depends -- as someone close to the campaign once observed, in another context -- on what the meaning of "is" is.

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