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Can Grammar Solve Politics?

The answer is no. Duh.

But it can provide an interesting lens through which to view political rhetoric. On Tuesday night’s presidential debate, moderator Candy Crawley corrected Mitt Romney when he attempted to catch the Prez in a lie over having used “act of terror” in a speech regarding the attack in Libya. 1

In reading my Google News feed earlier today, an article on Fox News caught my eye–a piece by Judith Miller entitled “Crowley’s intervention as moderator-in-chief swung the debate in Obama’s favor.” The argument at the heart of the essay/journalistic endeavor is that in the Rose Garden speech in question, the President’s use of “act of terror,” was in fact “acts of terror,” and far more generic in meaning. He was not, Fox News contends, clearly referring to Benghazi–he could simply be referencing 9/11 or other, more general, acts of terror. And in confirming that he indeed referred to Benghazi as an “act of terror” in that speech, Crawley’s intervention was interpretive and not necessarily factual. Here, before I totally ruin any credibility I have as a grammar person, 2 I’ll let Judith Miller explain.

Then he went on to praise the Libyans for helping save others under attack and lauded the victim, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three paragraphs later, he said he had been to a memorial to commemorate 9/11 and paid tribute to those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a paragraph later, he added: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

Was Obama’s use of the term “acts of terror” referring to 9/11 and the other militant Islamic attacks that have plagued America for so long? Or was he referring to the murders in Benghazi as “acts of terror?” Fair-minded readers may disagree. Even CNN’s own John King said that Obama’s statement struck him as a “generic” comment about terror, and not specifically a decision to label the Libya attack a terrorist act.

Now, as someone who cares about grammar, 3 I believe that the use of the word “act” in the sentence containing “that justice is done for this terrible act” clearly refers to Benghazi as the “terrible act” in question, which then designates this “act” as a specific example of the more generic “acts” in the previous statement. “No acts of terror” such as “this terrible act.” The second reference to the word confirms its inclusion, and thus, Benghazi is, by association, one of many “acts of terror.”


There you go, Candy Crawley. Your “biased” intervention has the support of Grammar Logic. 4
But we all know grammar is elitist.

No one wants to elect a grammar nerd to the Oval Office. It wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t solve a thing.

Or would it? 5

  1. okay, for a piece about grammar, that’s a complicated sentence. Apologies to all.
  2. too late
  3. mostly because I misuse it terribly. again, we have a complicated relationship
  4. trademarked!
  5. This is just to say: the top image was shamelessly stolen from the New York Times website without permission. Forgive me. It was delicious. So sweet and so cold.


  1. Brad Fest Brad Fest

    As someone who just taught “Authority and American Usage” and Strunk & White, your self-consciousness over grammar in a piece about grammar seems simply unavoidable. Love the plums at the top. (Oh yeah, re: a tiny style issue, fns. come after punctuation, unless you’re using a semi-colon or dash, in which case it comes before. . . . grammar grammar. Argh.) Great post.

  2. […] good friend Adriana Ramirez just put up a pretty interesting post , “Can Grammar Solve Politics?” on grammar, the second Presidential Debate, and the Benghazi attacks over at her blog. Check it. […]

  3. I am still struggling with this footnote plugin. Thanks for the feedback. And I think I’ll be self-conscious forever. Once you’re teaching it, you’ve opened yourself up to scrutiny, and must therefore be vigilant.

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