In late July 2012, presidental candidate Mitt Romney publicized a statement by President Barack Obama, "You didn't build that," claiming that Obama was saying American small business owners didn't build their own businesses.
Late-night comedian and author Jon Stewart said Romney's interpretation was inaccurate, a way to "make willful hay out of this rather common singular-plural demonstrative pronoun snafu." While I was merely delighted to hear the words "demonstrative pronoun" on national television, Stewart was stating that what Obama was referring to with "that" was the infrastructure that allows small businesses to flourish in the United States, not the businesses themselves. What Romney is trying to do of course is get into the Oval Office, to join the short list of men who have been president. He wants to join The Presidents Club.
The book by that title is a wonderful examination of the personal relationships between and among presidents and former presidents during their lifetime. Authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, editors at Time magazine, did amazing in-depth research on how these men (all men, to date) have talked to one another, politicked with one another, supported one another, and helped the nation in the process. The details are fascinating: Clinton plays golf with Obama. Bush Sr. invites Clinton to spend the night in a saltbox cottage in Kennebunkport, ME. And Harry Truman offers to serve as Ike's vice-presidential running mate if Ike needs him in 1948.
Romney wants to join that heady club. One can't help but wonder whether, if he does, he and Obama will ever discuss the issue of demonstrative pronouns.
What Stewart called "Obama's slight grammatical misstep" concerned this section of Obama's speech in Roanoke, VA, on July 13:
"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. Somebody else made that happen."
The brouhaha turns on the antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun "that." Does "that" mean the "unbelievable American system," the "roads and bridges"? Or does "that" mean "a business"?
"That" is a pronoun. It has an antecedent, and the antecedent is what determines what "that" means.
Antecedents are the nouns that pronouns refer to, the nouns that pronouns take the place of. From the Latin for before (ante) and they fall (cedent), antecedents fall before the pronouns. But how far before? Is the antecedent the noun closest to the pronoun?
Many argue that yes, the antecedent of a pronoun is the noun that falls most closely before the pronoun, which in this case would make it "business."
What Stewart is arguing with his reference to "common singular-plural . . snafu" is the difference between "that" (singular) and "those" (plural). Stewart is saying that Obama should have used "those" to clearly refer to the system, roads, and bridges, rather than "that" which can be understood to refer to "business."
It's a fine point and a wonderfully chewy piece of discussion for grammarians. But is it political hay? Is it a great big winning point for Romney? A grave error by Obama?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, I am continuing to enjoy The Presidents Club , hoping that by virtue of this "unbelievable American system" there will be new members, brought to power by rule of law, without bloodshed, for many generations to come.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.
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