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When Bad Grammar Happens to Good Candidates

Still having trouble deciding who should get your vote? Why not turn to the one issue the media has ignored: the candidates’ grammar!

I’ll try to be small-D democratic here, with one error each for McCain, Clinton, and Obama. (I’ve thrown in a freebie from Geraldine Ferraro.)

Me, Myself, and I, Part I: Senator Clinton

“As I recall, I was invited to meet with them by a good friend of mine, Linda Lader[,] . . . [and] by Doug Coe, who was and still is, the director of the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Prayer outreach and it was over at their headquarters in Virginia which is kind of a retreat center. And, they invited Tipper and I to come to lunch and I really did it mostly for Linda and Doug who asked me to.”1
“But the differences between Barack and I pale in comparison to the differences that we have with Republicans . . .”2

In the first quotation, from an interview on her faith, Senator Clinton and Tipper are the objects of the verb “invited.” Thus the object pronoun—“Tipper and me”—is correct.

In Clinton’s debate distinction between Senator Obama and her, the difference between I and me is that the object form me correctly follows the preposition between.

Bloggers jumped on Senator Clinton for these subject-object glitches, but let’s face it: at least she made them orally. That’s more than we can say for the many lawyers who sign letters with “If you have any questions, please contact Jane Doe or I,” or “please contact Jane Doe or myself”!

Me, Myself, and I, Part II: Senator Obama

“If you talk to those wounded warriors at Walter Reed who, prior to me getting to the Senate, were having to pay for their meals and have to pay for their phone calls to their family while they’re recovering from amputations, they've said that I've engaged not just in talk, but in action.”3

When you use the noun form of a verb, as the Senator did with getting in this comment on Walter Reed Army Hospital, you need the possessive form of the pronoun: my, not me. Obama should have described Walter Reed’s treatment of veterans “prior to my getting to the Senate.”

Better yet, just avoid “prior to,” a legalistic phrase that exposes Obama’s lawyerly roots. Had he started with the more natural before, as in “before I got to the Senate,” he would have avoided this common error.

Faulty Parallel Universe: Senator McCain

“Iraqi and American forces must not only use force to clear areas occupied by insurgents but to stay and hold these areas to deny them as a base for insurgent forces and allow economic and political development to occur in a secure environment.”4

When you use “not only . . . but also,” make sure the clauses are parallel. Here, McCain put “not only” before the verb use. But he’s arguing that American forces must “use force” for two reasons: “to clear areas” and “to stay and hold these areas.” To keep the “not only” and “but also” clauses parallel, he should have written the sentence as follows:

“Iraqi and American forces must use force not only to clear areas occupied by insurgents but also to stay and hold these areas . . .”

Past Candidate Imperfect: Representative Ferraro

Former VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro was criticized for her comment on Senator Obama’s success:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”

But amid all the fuss over the content, no one mentioned the former Representative’s lack of sensitivity to the past subjunctive: her reference to a hypothetical situation calls for “were,” not “was.”

Remember this: What’s the famous line from Fiddler on the Roof? “If I was a rich man”? No—he’s not rich—so it’s “If I were a rich man.” The same goes here. Ferraro should have said, “If Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position.” That way, she would have been correct grammatically, if not politically.

_____

  1. Interview with Senator Clinton, New York Times, Jul. 6, 2007.
  2. Debate in Los Angeles, Jan. 31, 2008.
  3. Debate in Austin, Feb. 21, 2008.
  4. On the Issues: Iraq, John McCain’s official Web site, Apr. 28, 2008.

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