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Rescuing "articulate" from the Language Police

"I mean, you got the first sorta mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and- and- and clean, and a nice lookin' guy. I mean, it's -- that's a storybook, man!"


"I mean, you got the first sorta mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and- and- and clean, and a nice lookin' guy. I mean, it's -- that's a storybook, man!"

What Joe Biden said of Barack Obama -- it all comes down to one li'l comma.

Or a pause that is the equivalent of a comma.

I guess I'm a little behind on this story. A Scanners reader (thanks again, Matthew!) posted a comment with this link from Language Log that gets into more detail about what Biden said (including an actual recorded excerpt of the interview, so you can hear for yourself) versus what the New York Observer reported he said. It's so interesting I thought it deserved a separate top-level post.

From Mark Lieberman at Language Log:

But there's also a linguistic and a journalistic point here. Senator Biden's word sequence corresponds to two different sentences with very different meanings, and the Observer misquoted him by omitting the comma.

I don't know whether the Observer misrepresented Biden's statement out of ignorance, carelessness, or malice. Maybe [reporter Jason] Horowitz and his editors don't know the difference between the two types of relative clauses; maybe they didn't bother to think about the difference in interpretation in this case; or maybe they know the difference in general, thought about it in this case, and decided that it would make a better story to present the wrong version.

Again, let me emphasize that I do not know what Biden was thinking when he said what he said. As I wrote before, I'm sure that some people use "articulate" (intentionally or not) to express their mild surprise that some African-Americans have a command of the English language.

But having listened to the Biden interview excerpt, and considering the context of his remarks (sizing up his opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination), I agree with Lieberman that what Biden most likely meant was: Obama (the storybook political phenom behind "Obama-mania" -- a phrase that returns "about 105,000" results on Google) is the first African-American candidate who has a serious shot at the nomination because he is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking. (I'm more disturbed by the word "clean," but I assume he's talking about the first-term senator's lack of negative baggage, not how often he showers. But I don't see how any of those adjectives in the second part of his sentence can be construed as prejudicial -- especially in politics. I welcome Joe Biden to say the same things about me, as long as he's sincere.)

In this context, if you can't describe a man like Senator Barack Obama, former president of the Harvard Law Review, as "articulate" (as in "Expressing oneself easily in clear and effective language: an articulate speaker"), then the word has no real-world meaning -- unless you honestly think Biden was attempting to point out that his fellow senator is "Endowed with the power of speech." Look: With Obama in the race, Biden doesn't have a chance at the nomination, anyway. I would love for Obama to be our next president. How refreshing it would be to have someone in the White House who expresses himself easily in clear and effective language. Or who knows how to pronounce "nuclear." Or who knows the difference between "dissemble" and "dissasemble"...

"I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right." — President George W. Bush, Rome, Italy, July 22, 2001

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