The subtitle for this post could be: How parsing a sentence could save your behind.
Delegates at the Republican National Convention this week had a field day mocking the president over the ill-advised “you didn’t build that” comment he made in July.
Obama’s supporters claim the phrase is taken out of context. And it is. Here’s the context:
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 issue is not that the quote is taken out of context. The issue, as I’m sure you’ve already realized, is that the proper referent of the pronoun “that” is unclear.
Obama’s supporters say “that” refers to “this unbelievable American system.” His detractors say the referent is “business.”
A good editor, if I may be so bold as to say so, would have pointed out this quandary and requested clarification (ahem) before the speech.
As an example, just the other day Will pointed out that I had two women in a scene, so when I put “she said,” I had better specify which one. (Thanks, Will. Even editors need editors.)
It doesn’t matter that the theme of Obama’s speech was “You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.” (A comma splice, by the way.) People aren’t going to remember what was meant, they’re going to remember what they heard. And when you separate a pronoun from its referent by 21 words, a period, and an M-dash, you’re asking for trouble, especially when you allow another noun to intervene.