23 May 2006

If you're going to say something, by all means do so

As a philologist, I enjoy words; and I enjoy studying the way that they are used or, in some cases mis-used.  I also enjoy studying logic, since words are often used (both properly and improperly) in argumentation.  With that apology in place, you’ll understand the following complaint.

Addressing the National Restaurant Association yesterday, the President said that we are making incremental progress in Iraq.  Now, much as I respect the President (though, admittedly, very much at odds with him on the issue of illegal immigration), he really didn’t say much.  Think about it: incremental progress.  Consider the definitions:

1.  Progress: with reference to Iraq, the meaning which best fits is probably “improving.”  So things in Iraq are improving incrementally.

2.  Incremental: The best definition is to be found, no doubt, in the verbal (as opposed to the nominative) idea, which is “To increase by steps.”

So, according to the President, we are making progress (i.e., “improving”) in Iraq incrementally (i.e., “in steps”).  Now consider my question:  Just what sort of progress is not incremental?

Why am I picking on the President?  This habit of speaking a lot of words to say, in effect, nothing much is precisely one of the reasons we tend not to trust politicians, isn’t it?

“But, Philologous,” you say, “can’t you see that all the President was saying is that we’re making progress in Iraq, but not with all the alacrity we might like to see.”

Yes.  And that—or something like it—is exactly what he should have said, because that would be something.  One of the things upon which I agree with Rush Limbaugh is that words mean things.  (And I’m sure that I believed that before he did.  But I don’t have a radio talk show.)  If one is trying to say something and mean something, then one must find the words which mean what one wants to mean when he is speaking.  Otherwise, one runs the risk of sounding like just another gas-filled politician.


Eduardo said...

But, couldn't Mr. Bush simply meant more emphasis, as in the parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry?

James Frank Solís said...


For emphasis in Hebrew one normally repeats the word to be emphasized, for example: "Holy, holy, holy..." One does not normally achieve emphasis by use of synonymn. (Also, Hebrew parallelism is normally line-by-line parallelism, with one line repeating the entire idea of a/the preceding line.) But since we are talking about english, not Hebrew, the relevant fact is that this is not how we acheive emphasis in english. Moreover, note that "progress" is a noun, and "incremental" is an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns. In this case, then, "incremental" should, according to standard english grammar, tell us something about the kind of progress we are making. It doesn't: all progress is incremental. Finally, the possibility you raise in turn raises the question: What, precisely, is the President trying to emphasize? Just the fact that progress is being made? You don't identify what you think the President is emphasizing.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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