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Parsing Palin

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 6, 2008 12:16 PM

After last week's VP debate, reader James Maiewski e-mailed about a Sarah Palinism that struck him: "The way she uses 'that' as a demonstrative even when there's no apparent antecedent" -- for instance, "Americans are craving that straight talk."

"Any thoughts?" he asked. But there was no need to think: Real linguists have been parsing Sarah Palin so I don't have to. Before I even opened Maiewski's e-mail, Mark Liberman at Language Log had already laid out the terms of the that question, the stats, and the history, and comments on the subtleties of the "affective demonstrative" were rolling in.

There's more Palinalia, much more, at Language Log. Liberman also diagrams the Palin sentence that Maureen Dowd called undiagrammable and, separately, analyzes Palin's deployment of also. Geoff Nunberg disagrees with Steven Pinker's analysis of the "nucular" pronunciation Palin favors. And Arnold Zwicky explores Palin's so-called g-dropping and use of "gonna," asking, among other things, why the New Yorker chose (unusually) to transcribe it as "gonna" in its recent Palin profile.

And if you're curious about Paul J.J. Payack's assertion, repeated by CNN, that Palin spoke at an eighth-grade-plus level in the debate while Joe Biden clung by his fingertips to the seventh-grade level, go read Michael Covarrubias, at Wishydig, for a patient (and sometimes impatient) explanation of the utter silliness of the claim.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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