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You didn’t understand that

August 28, 2012

Mitt Romney and his supporters have been making hay with President Obama’s comment “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” Here’s what President Obama said:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.

President Obama has committed what linguists call an anaphor, which is a grammatical structure very common in rhetoric, and one which Obama has been fond of even before this business comment.

The problem in resolving an anaphor is identifying which antecedent the pronoun is bound to (in this case the pronoun is that). Does that refer to the business? To the roads and bridges? Or to this unbelievable American system?

The rules of English grammar alone aren’t always clear enough to make a determination. We like to think of grammar as an exact science, but it is not. So when grammar doesn’t provide an answer, syntax must be examined as well. If you are interested in linguistics, it is one of those fascinating and exciting problems of language.

Obama opponents insist on a technically possible but least likely interpretation:

you didn’t build that (business)

when the syntax and the political context all point to a more likely interpretation of

you didn’t build that (unbelievable American system)

The Cranky Linguist says:

Note the anaphor that, the last word in this bit of text, refers obviously to roads and bridges.

But I contend that the anaphor goes beyond the nearest antecedent (roads and bridges). I think Obama was using roads and bridges as a part of the whole in a series of examples illuminating the real antecedent, this unbelievable American system. The great teacher and the roads and bridges are both connected but subordinate to the system. But speaking off the cuff, he malformed and interrupted the series and never finished it with more examples. For example, suppose Obama had said the exact same words in a slightly different order:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.

Because English grammar can’t unambiguously resolve the anaphor, humans must naturally look at the syntax (and context) to figure out what that is referring to. The unresolved anaphor still remains, but the syntax more strongly reveals the antecedent (the American system).

Using the pronoun that is another clue. To refer to the immediate antecedent, an English speaker would generally choose it – as in “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it.” But Obama used that to refer to the more remote antecedent – the public system of teachers, roads and bridges, and all that.

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