Saturday, October 11, 2008

If Murphy would have asked Dion a reasonable question

Stéphane Dion’s interview with CTV anchor Steve Murphy has been getting a lot of play here. According to The Star's Tonda MacCharles "Dion struggles to understand the question's conditional subjunctive tense, before attempting to answer, stumbling as he describes his 30-day, five-point plan for post-election consultations." Leaving aside MacCharles's confounding of tense and mood, I think she's wrong. Dion's confusion shows that he grasped the question perfectly. It's Murphy who had no idea what he was asking about. Here's the transcript:
CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

Murphy begins with a counterfactual condition: "If you were Prime Minister..." At this point, the time reference of the question is perfectly ambiguous; because the form of were is used to indicate counterfactuality rather than time reference, but Murphy clears that up with his next word: now. At this point, the hypothetical setting is established and the hypothetical question begins; Murphy asks, "...what would you..." Again, we have a verb would which is a past-tense form, but which is indicating counterfactuality rather than past time. But then Murphy clearly locates the question in the past time by using the present perfect aspect "...have done...".

To recap, Murphy had the following options:

  1. what are you doing (no hypothetical, present time)
  2. what did you do (no hypothetical, past time)
  3. what would you do (hypothetical, present or future time)
  4. what would you have done (hypothetical, past time)
He chose #4. So Dion is hypothethically Prime Minister, and Murphy wants to know the steps that Prime Minister Dion took prior to the day of the interview in this imagined universe.

Of course, in imagination land, anything can happen, but it is reasonable to expect that apart from Dion being PM, other things, such as the dates of elections, have not changed. If Dion is Prime Minister at the time in question, then it is most likely because he was elected two years earlier. This is exactly what Dion takes the question to mean.

But Murphy denies this interpretation. He wants to know, "If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years." In other words, in his fantasy, Dion has suddenly become Prime Minister. But if the query is about Dion's prior actions, his sudden hypothetical PMship becomes irrelevant.

Unfortunately, because of Dion's status as a non-native speaker of English and Murphy's status as a native speaker, Murphy gets a free ride and Dion is said not to understand. Here, however, it is clearly Murphy who needs the English lesson, or at least a lesson in logic.


Q Higuchi said...

I totally agree with you, Brett (except, perhaps, that I believe your 'present perfect' in "Murphy clearly locates the question in the past time by using the present perfect" is a slip for 'perfect (aspect)'). This goes to show that a little education in basic grammar and logic is badly needed, especially for people who talk in public.

In this case, Mr Murphy probably did not have a very clear time reference point when he asked his first question - which in itself is fine; we very often don't know what we want to say until we have said it. The question being formed in his mind must have been something like '(The economy is a total mess now.) In a world where you are PM, how are things different?' When he said it, it came out as a curious mix of two different time reference points - one of those sloppy speech errors we all make. So Mr Dion simply asked for clarification.

It is at this point that Mr Murphy should have laughed at what he had just said, and rephrased his question. As a CTV anchor, he should probably gone for something like 'OK, let's do this in two parts: first, if you had been PM for the past 2.5 years, would you have let all this happen?; and second, now that all this has happened, what would you do to remedy it if you were PM now?'.

But alas, that's not what he did; instead, he desperately clung to his ill-constructed question. Maybe he was feeling 'Oh! This is one of those grammar things again!'; or maybe he was even a little irritated ('Why do I have to make everything painfully clear just to ask a simple question? Oh, this man is not a native speaker of English, that's what it is ...). This sentiment has evidently been shared by Tonda MacCharles.

(I can testify that this sort of irritation, even resentment, is quite common; I occasionally work as an interpreter, mediating between English-speaking and Japanese-speaking parties. Oh, things can be (potentially) really bad ... I often play dumb and get speakers to clarify what they mean, so both sides know what each other is saying. But I digress.)

Solution? - a little education for people to reflect on the language they use; which will lead them to the sort of peace of mind where they can laugh at what they say; which will in turn allow them to objectively arrange what they say (like, hey, I just split my infinitive; now what?).

Michael Stout said...

Spot on Brett!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. Dion's English I'm so sick and tired of hearing that he has trouble communicating in English. There are only two differences between the English that Stephane Dion speaks and the English that ordinary UNIlingual anglophones speak. First, he, naturally, speaks English with a Quebecois accent and so for some words, not all IMHO, he uses syllable timing. The second and more important difference is that he knows and USES English better than most ordinary UNIlingual anglophones. Murphy and MacCharles are examples of this.
This whole business of Mr. Dion's English proficiency IMHO reveals an excreble prejudice among anglophones. It's sad that these people are among the first to brag about our so-called pluralistic democracy and then they turn around and condemn people who speak English with a different accent (I'm not sure that Mr. Dion's variety of English would even qualify as a dialect).
To add to Higuchi-san's wisdom, I think we need to really reflect on what we as a people, as Canadians, believe about our society. We clearly don't practice what we preach.
Thanks again for this great post.

Michael Stout said...

Hey Brett, have you seen Martin Kryzwinski's lexical analysis of the US presidential debates? If not, you can see it here:
I especially like the "windbag index". It shows that quantitative analysis doesn't have to be humourless.
I've not had time to look at this closely but Wordl ( looks interesting. I wonder how the candidates would fair in a lexical analysis of the English debates. Don't think Mr. Dion would have the highest "windbag index".