Wednesday, May 06, 2015

This comma miscue hardly seems worth making a federal case of, but it does make a point about current political rhetoric


From a tweet by Christopher Mendoza (@CMendoz_a), which reads (links onsite): "What a welcome from Rancho HS! Can't believe they made this @HillaryClinton sign. They're excited! #Hillary2016"

everyday adj. (ca. 1623): encountered or used routinely or typically: ORDINARY (~ clothes)
-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition

everyday adj. 1. Suitable for ordinary days or routine occasions: an everyday suit. 2. Commonplace; ordinary: everyday worries
--The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition
by Ken

It's not hard to draw me into a comma brawl. I think the comma is one of mankind's great inventions, and it's a shame that it's so often so badly used, abused, or erroneously not used. That said, this seems to me a pretty trivial case of comma confusion. Nevertheless, it does make a point.

The byline of Hunter Schwarz, who according to his biographical note "covers the intersection of politics and pop culture for the Washington Post," has lately been popping up frequently, usually chronicling what Hunter seems to find amusingly inapt sayings and doings in DC political life. Now such things, as we know, aren't hard to find, but I can't say I've been much impressed by his findings. Often when he points at a thing there is some kind of thing to be seen, but he doesn't seem to understand what he's looking at, and has a way of being irritatingly smug about his wrong conclusions.

Last night he posted this on "The Fix," headlined "While making campaign signs, remember to mind your commas":
Students at Rancho High School in Las Vegas made a banner to welcome Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. On it, a quote from her video announcing her presidential candidacy: "Everyday, Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion."

Except, that's not what she said in her video.

According to the subtitles on the video, there's no comma between "everyday" and "Americans." Also, if there was a comma, "every" and "day" would be two separate words instead of one (just for the record).

Clinton uses the phrase to suggest "Average Joe" and "middle-class" Americans, while the students -- actual real-life "everyday Americans" -- didn't interpret that way. For them, Clinton's quote meant that Americans need a champion every single day.

It's yet another reminder that the phrase "everyday Americans" (as opposed to ... someday Americans? 9-to-5 Americans? Weekday-only Americans?) is a made-up phrase used by politicians to try to connect with voters. It's not really a thing.
Hunter certainly seems right about the students' incorrect insertion of the comma and the change in meaning it creates -- and right too that in the students' usage it would have to be "every day," not "everyday." To make a federal case of it, though, it would be nice if the change of meaning were a bit more significant.

And while he's right too that the phrase "everyday Americans" is being "used by politicians to try to connect with voters," I'm pretty sure he's wrong about it being "a made-up phrase" (only pretty sure because I don't know what this means; doesn't every phrase have to be made up in order to become a phrase?), and I'm quite sure he's wrong about its being "not really a thing." It may not be much of a thing, but it has a perfectly clear and understandable meaning -- ordinary Americans. Perhaps he doesn't have access to a dictionary, so I've done this bit of research for him, as reported at the top of this post. (Note that I'm not necessarily recommending these dictionaries. They just happen to be the ones I had closest to hand, and they both have reasonable measures of credibility.)

Still, as I suggested before, when Hunter points his bludgeony finger, there's usually something there, and the fact remains that the students, or whoever was advising them, don't seem to have grasped Hillary C's intended meaning, leading them to substitute a meaning of their own -- very likely because the phrase "everyday Americans," though unquestionably a thing, isn't all that much of a thing.

Actually, I happen to believe that "everyday Americans" are an enormously real thing, that there's an enormously significant, even momentous, difference between "everyday Americans" and, say, the Koch brothers and their fellow billionaire oligarchs, or our millionaire Congress, or for that matter -- as our Gaius Publius was pointing out just today -- Hillary Clinton. Still, the political-consulting class might want to take note of at least this instance of how well, or not so well, the phrase is being heard.

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