Friday, January 12, 2007


It's been more than two decades now since I first began to notice a particularly odd politicization of syntax going on among Republican politicians. Thanks to the advent of television cameras in the U.S. Senate, I was witness to Robert Dole's many speeches, in the course of which he could be heard repeatedly speaking of the "Democrat Party." At first I thought he had simply misread his text, but then I heard him making use of this painfully truncated adjectival form in other contexts. Perhaps the most memorable came when Dole, someone who had campaigned as a wounded hero of the second World War, spoke of the "Democrat Wars" we had been in, starting with the one that he had fought in himself.

While I might at first have been tempted to chalk this up to Dole's poor grasp of standard English, I soon began to hear this same usage spreading throughout the Republican Party. By the millennium, it had gotten to the point that no conservative spokesperson appearing on television appeared capable of uttering the phrase "Democratic Party" or indeed of ever using the adjectival form of "Democrat" to modify any phrase at all. In his press conference following the 2006 elections, marked, after all, by Democratic victories, President Bush couldn't seem to get the syllable "ic" past his lips. He spoke of "Democrat leaders," "Democrat votes" and, as always, of the "Democrat Party."

By now, not only English teachers but journalists had begun to take notice. The WASHINGTON POST ran an editorial by Ruth Marcus that traced this grammatically incorrect locution, now so prevalent among those who would denounce political correctness, as far back as the Harding administration. Senator Joseph McCarthy, to bring things back to the Senate, was especially fond of this construction, using it, as the Columbia guide to Standard American Usage observes, to deny the Democratic Party any suggestion that it might actually "be democratic."

But what caught my attention in the wake of the election and of Marcus's editorial was a letter in response from one Robert Brantley. Brantley wrote to the POST to explain that Bush's use of such phrases as "Democrat Party" was not ungrammatical at all, but was, rather, a sign of the excellent education that George W. Bush had received during his years at Yale University.

Now, the Yale department of English has been accused of any number of horrors in recent times, but this is the first time I've ever seen them held responsible for President Bush's tenuous grasp of English syntax.

Brantley, setting the WASHINGTON POST stylists straight, explained that "it is incorrect to add an 'ic' which results in a word -- 'democratic' -- that has generic applicability to ideals that predate the Democrat Party by millennia."

I've been teaching English for a good while, but even I don't have all the prescriptive rules of grammar at my fingertips -- and so I maintain a fine little library of usage manuals, on and off line, that I consult when in doubt. Some of these manuals even include contributions from professors of English at Yale, and yet nowhere in the literature I have surveyed have I been able to locate any such rule as the one cited with such assurance by Robert Brantley in the President's defense.

On the other hand, surely any good student at Yale during the year's of George W. Bush's attendance would have learned in U.S. History courses that our Jeffersonian party, the oldest continuously existing national political party in America, began to call itself the "Democratic Republicans" back in the eighteenth century, well before the advent of the Republic Party we know and love today. And surely Robert Brantley would not want us to believe that our highly literate founding fathers were guilty of egregious violations of good usage.

1 comment:

tyrone said...

Great commentary, Aldon. By the way I enjoyed having breakfast with you and your friend and your wife (Anna?) at the MLA.