Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Reactions to Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute (Part I)

I had two reactions while listening to former Vice President Richard Cheney's speech about national security yesterday, 21 May 2009. In this posting I will describe a purely linguistic and fairly trivial reaction. I'll also have another, I hope more substantive post on the framing of information in that speech and recent terrorism-related discourse.

Not to split infinitives
First, the trivial reaction to linguistic form. The former vice president said,
Part of our responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse.
This struck me as slightly odd, and after a second's reflection I figured out why.

1. Our responsibility was not to do X.
2. Our responsibility was to not do X.

I most readily understand structure 1 to mean that there is a set of responsibilities that includes several tasks, but that X is not one of them. On the other hand, I would use 2 to mean that the responsibility is to do the negative of X (don't forget etc.).

While listening to the former vice president, I very briefly understood something like 3.

3. Forgetting the terrible harm that had been done to America and letting 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse was not our responsibility.

What the former vice president clearly intended, though, was the sentiment expressed in 4.

4. Not forgetting the terrible harm that had been done to America and not letting 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse was our responsibility.

Of course, I was able to understand this very quickly, but the mismatch between Mr. Cheney's preferred style and my own did not go unnoticed.

I suspect that Mr. Cheney (or his speech writers) prefers not to split infinitives. That would rule out a sentence like 2, above. He is not alone: the Corpus of Contemporary American English contains many more instances of strings like responsibility not to V than responsibility to not V, as shown by the following table.

 to notnot toexample
responsibility863responsibility not to let the people down
job4118the job is not to defend the country
duty354The duty not to discriminate

[NOTE: Due to a typo, an earlier version of this chart suggested that there are 543 examples of duty x not to in the corpus. There are actually 54.]

Of course, some of these not to strings intend the "no responsibility" reading, while some intend the "responsibility to negative" reading. (In other words, the author of the job example has no responsibility to defend the country, while the author of the duty example must not discriminate.) I'll look more closely at the results and try to post some sort of analysis in a few days. For now, suffice to say that while my own usage of the split infinitive doesn't appear to be unique, Mr. Cheney's avoidance seems to be more common.

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