The Things People Say: Sentence-like Sequences of Words

Word Salad

Today, communication fans, I’d like to dismantle four sentence-like sequences of words that have something in common: muddled meanings caused by a poor (or possibly clever) choice of words. Who said them and with what intent is irrelevant to the discussion. I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to attach significance in the broader realm of social issues.

Here is exhibit A:

“We strongly condemn these allegations and leave it in the capable hands of law enforcement.” — political campaign spokesperson in response to the indictment of a delegate for possession of illegal weapons and child pornography.

This could be read to mean two different things. The statement seems to be condemning abuses that many people think of as heinous. But the subject of the sentence is not the criminal behavior that the delegate is charged with, but rather the allegations of criminal behavior. ”We strongly condemn these allegations…” unambiguously indicates that the allegations are being condemned not the alleged behavior.

Which did the spokesperson intend? Was this a clumsy phrasing or a clever one?

Here’s exhibit B:

“Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nations (sic) founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.”— plank statement of a state political party.

This sentence—considering the source—is intended to mean that the Bible and the truths it enshrines are recognized by our nation’s founders and shared by most Texans. What it actually says is that homosexuality is a behavior ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by the founders of our nations (plural) and shared by the majority of Texans. (Much to their surprise, I imagine.)

How so? The words has been, in their placement and case, refer to a singular subject. The singular subject of the sentence is homosexual behavior. After that, there is either a typo (has been instead of have been) or a missing comma after truths. This is a pretty important distinction that rests on two words and/or a flimsy bit of punctuation than cannot stop a reader, but only slow him down a bit. If the writers of the plank had only used have been, then the subject of the verb would have been taken as unchanging truths.

Call me crazy, but I actually treasure clear communication. I want to avoid creating sentences like the two above. If you share that desire, here’s a method I use: I break sentences with multiple clauses down into their component parts. Part A contains the subject statement. In Exhibit B, this is Homosexuality is a chosen behavior. The words ”that is” signal that the following clauses of the sentence will qualify the subject of part A.

So, to check this sentence I would read parts B through E with the explicit or implied ”that is” appended to the beginning of the sentence. Like this:

Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is:

  • “contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths…”
  • “ordained by God in the Bible”
  • “recognized by our nations (sic) founders”
  • ”shared by the majority of Texans.”

Just that simple test can keep you from saying things you did not mean to say and from having friends and colleagues going all Inigo Montoya on your prose.

Exhibit C:

“I have called it a virtual wall. Maybe we will be building a wall over some aspects of it; I don’t know.” — congressman in response to a question about a border wall between the US and Mexico.

Where do I start?

First, the speaker tells you that he has called this a virtual wall. I’m not sure how he knows this since it’s not his wall, but the statement is a study in ambiguity. What does it mean to say we may build a virtual wall over some aspects of some (unspecified) thing?

Border wall tears There are two “its” in this statement—two subjects. Let’s assume, as one journalistic source did, that the second ”it” referred to the US-Mexico border. Fine. What does it mean to say we may build a wall over some aspects of the border?

An aspect is “a particular part or feature of something”, as if we might build a wall over some features of the border and not others. For the record, that’s what we have already done—building where logistics and cost were not prohibitive and excluding features like the Rio Grande, which would be unimaginably tricky for even the best of builders.

But wait—this is a virtual wall, not a physical wall—as in ”nearly, but not really, as described” or ”not physically existing as such, but made”. What this statement was meant to say is a mystery. What it does say is that we might build a not quite real wall over some features of the border. I must ask, to what purpose—to keep out virtual refugees?

And last, but not least, Exhibit D:

“I have to tell you, eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.” — organizational spokesperson, responding to the idea that a woman might follow a mixed-race man as POTUS.

This is one of those sentences that means nothing from front to back because its centerpiece—the words demographically symbolic—are either a) meaningless or b) a coined euphemism for things the speaker knew he shouldn’t say. 


His euphemism raises the question: What’s wrong with something or someone being demographically symbolic? Why is eight years of it enough? Those who know what demographically symbolic really means (a minority—specifically, a black man and a woman) are comfy with a coded message that demotes people in the reference group from human beings to mere symbols.

IMO, demographically symbolic are a subset of ”weasel words”—words intended to give the impression that you’ve said something without actually having said it (like, you virtually said it). Those of us who are appalled that this passionate sleight of tongue was uttered might cry out in protest: Holy obfuscatory euphemisms, Batman! But if we did, the speaker could say with a perfectly straight face that he never mentioned blacks or women or any other minority. I guess that’s what you’d call virtual prejudice.

While Exhibit B is just a poorly constructed sentence that doesn’t relay the author’s obvious intent, the other three exhibits are more problematic, because they are, or may be, intended to dodge their real meaning and offer the speaker an opportunity to say, ”I didn’t mean that. You misheard me.”

No, they chose their words poorly … or cleverly, depending.

In any case, these utterances offer the speaker deniability. I will not call it plausible deniability because in none of these cases would denial be at all plausible. Exhibit D is particularly pernicious because of what it actually does say: minority men and women are not valid representatives of American citizenry and therefore should be viewed as an unwelcome anomaly in the Oval Office.

In conclusion, I’d like to make a heartfelt plea to all writers and speakers out there. For the love of God and humanity, when you write, when you speak, please say what you mean as clearly as you can, then own it. If we all do it consistently enough and loudly enough, and insist on similar clarity from others—who knows—it might spread.


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