We all make language mistakes from time to time.
For a political candidate, even the slightest misstep can cause public uproar or, worse, lost votes. Science Now
reports that in addition to a politician’s credentials, policy ideas, and overall likability, a candidate is judged by his or her use of language.
The study indicates that subtle changes in sentence structure and word usage can make the difference between whether voters view a politician as capable or unelectable.
As people hit the polls today to cast their ballots, here are some memorable language blunders from U.S. presidents, a presidential nominee, and one vice presidential candidate. In some cases it comes down to parsing—even nitpicking—but hey, those are our
tax dollars committing those errors. The least they can give us is some Schadenfreude
President Barack Obama
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama rarely, if ever, stumbles over the names of political heads of state or more common phrases or words (such as “nuclear”).
Obama does, however, rely on verbal crutches such as “um” and “ah” when he’s speaking off the cuff. The tic was most notable during his disastrous performance at the first presidential debate this year.
The president also had some trouble when on Aug. 29 he sat for an “Ask Me Anything” session with users of the social network Reddit. Obama’s mistakes came within minutes of one another:
In the first paragraph, the president made a fairly common linguistic mistake, incorrectly writing “their” instead of “there.” In the second section, it seems he fell victim to a typo: The article “an” should precede the word “asteroid” instead of “a.” (Editor’s note: He also lowercased “Mars” in one reference but correctly capitalized it the second time. Also “Curiosity” and “Internet” should have been capitalized; chalk them all up to answering quickly in real time.
When the race between Mitt Romney and President Obama really started to heat up, a handful of language errors got some people asking about a key member of Romney’s staff: the copy editor.
It started in late May when the Romney camp unveiled a new app
called, “A Better Amercia.” You read that correctly; it says “Amercia
.” As such things usually do, the error went viral.
Just days later, the insidious “sneak peak
” misspelling appeared on the Romney Facebook page, and shortly thereafter, a Twitter feed caught the word “official” misspelled on the same page. It amounted to three misspellings in one week.
At the same time it was committing the spelling errors, the Romney camp had placed a job ad for a copy editor
. Go figure.
George W. Bush
Former President George W. Bush was notorious for his mispronunciations, made-up words, and muddled phrases. There were enough language blunders to fill a book (titled “Bushisms”).
Here are a few of Bush’s greatest hits:
• “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test." The president confused the case of the pronouns, both of which should have been in the nominative case: not "he or her," but "he or she.” That he was speaking about literacy made the gaffe a particular target of derision.
• “When we get the facts, we'll share it with the American people." Another pronoun issue, this time with regard to the antecedent. “It” doesn’t agree with “facts”; he should have said “them.”
• “They misunderestimated me.” A case of invented language—specifically too many prefixes. Take out “mis.”
• “I hear there’s rumors on the Internets that we’re going to have a draft.” Of course, it’s “Internet,” minus the “s,” and for the English-speaking world, a common saying—“on the Internets”—was born. Beyond that, “there’s rumors” should have been “there are rumors.”
• “I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, ‘Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me... You can't get fooled again!’” Well, at least he got half of the saying right.
Bush’s many verbal missteps seemed to take root in someone seeking to follow in his footsteps: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008.
For instance, Palin coined a word: “refudiate.” Presumably, it means to refute. She said it during a Fox News interview and, after taking flak for the coinage, defended her use of it by comparing herself to Shakespeare. She tweeted:
It seems Palin was tipping her hat to Bush’s “misunderestimate.”
John F. Kennedy
It was a profoundly historic moment. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy stood in West Berlin near the Berlin Wall, which the Soviet Union had built, and declared his solidarity with the people of the German city.
“Ich bin ein Berliner!
” the president exclaimed.
People in the U.S.—and, perhaps more important, in the Soviet Union—understood Kennedy’s meaning and intent: that he stood by the people of Berlin.
However, to many German people, it sounded entirely different. Due to the president’s Boston accent and because he had included the indefinite article “ein,” it seemed as though he had compared himself to a pastry. To Germans outside Berlin, a “Berliner” refers to a jelly doughnut.
Despite the mispronunciation, historians consider the June 22, 1963, address to be among the president’s finest speeches. The lesson, it seems, is to not sweat the small stuff—if you deliver a speech well, no language error will blunt its impact.
Allie Gray Freeland is the editor in chief of CollegeOnline.org and writes for various websites including ManagementDegrees.net and SheWrites.com.
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