Those Who Misquote Bush Misunderstandimate Grammar

Spinsanity discusses how some commentators have mischaracterized President Bush’s description of certain elements of Al Qaeda’s terrorist network. To be brief, the meme has spread that Bush said Al Qaeda was no longer a threat. He didn’t actually say that, but once attackers got a hold of that piece of straw, they thought it was meat. (Both Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan mentioned this Spinsanity piece yesterday.)

The problem, and the potential for the straw man, lies within the “slops” contemporary writers and speakers play with collective-noun-subject/pronoun/verb agreement. In many cases, writers and speakers mangle it, and those who read or listen come to expect it. The full Bush quote to which the commentators refer:

    Al Qaeda [singular] is [singular] on the run. That group [singular] of terrorists who attacked our country is [singular] slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half [collective singular or plural, plural in this case] of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are [plural, refers to “half”] either jailed or dead. In either case, they’re [plural/plural] not a problem anymore.

So the text indicates that the pronoun “they” does indeed refer to the half of the top operatives who are jailed or dead, which is the nearest antecedent. Al Qaeda, an individual entity, should be referred to with the pronoun “it.” That group, another singular antecedent that refers to Al Qaeda, is also singular.

Of course, “half” as a noun falls into the collective noun category where it can refer to either a plural (for a number of entities, like Maureen Dowd has lost half her marbles and cannot find them) or a singular (for a quantity not enumerated, like Maureen Dowd has lost half of her mind and cannot find it). Although Strunk and White advise you to play colloquially with such collective nouns, no where would they tell Bush to mix agreement (Al Qaeda is…they’re) in the same paragraph.

So Bush’s text means what he (or his writers) meant for it to say. Anyone who argues differently is deconstructing. Which will help you graduate from some of the country’s finest higher education institutions with a frameable piece of paper that says English upon it, but it won’t necessarily help you communicate more effectively.

(P.S. I’ll save the extended rant of each word and grammar rule having an individual purpose in oral or written communication and how violating these rules can lead to listen-time or read-time exceptions like the one demonstrated, and exploited by grammatical commentatorial H4X0Rz, above.)