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Archive for December, 2008

Conditionals

The other day I saw this link on Wood s Lot, and followed it. That took me to another YouTube link, which showed Liberal leader Stephane Dion struggling to understand a question that had been put to him.

In the twelve years since I left Canada, I have not followed Canadian politics and am very unfamiliar with what’s going on there. I’ve observed, however, that politics in North America has become increasingly partisan and divisive, especially in the US. Liberal and Conservative have become pejorative terms, and political discourse has descended to schoolyard name-calling. When I was a teenager, there was a general sense I picked up from adults I spoke to, including teachers at school, and from the media, that Liberal and Conservative were terms that no longer really meant anything. In 1988, for example, the majority of Canadians voted for the Conservative party and therefore approved of the free trade agreement with the US, which had been the major issue of those elections. The Liberals had fought against the agreement, although historically, free trade had been a Liberal platform, which the Conservatives had traditionally opposed.

People seemed to believe that all political parties were more or less the same. It was a cynical point of view, but a civilised one.

I often feel when I see videos of journalists on television, or look at comment and message boards on the internet, that I’m watching a civilisation collapse from within, eaten up by bitterness and pettiness.

I’m disappointed to see CTV resort to the kind of journalism I would expect from Fox, something I don’t remember from when I still lived in Canada. I remember Mike Duffy, but I don’t remember this sort of blatant partisanship. Perhaps it existed then, and I just didn’t notice it. But I seriously doubt it.

If anybody responds to this post, I’ve written the above to explain that I am not writing this post as a Liberal or Conservative. I don’t really care about politics, and don’t follow what’s going on in Canada.

The story is this. Dion was asked “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done differently?” Dion struggles to understand the question. CTV made a story of his inability to understand the question, and this, I am sure, had an effect on the elections, which the Liberals lost. When the election was over, Dion was heard to say that he particularly didn’t want to speak to anyone from CTV. He was very bitter. Let’s see why.

When Judith Regan published O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It, what irritated me more than anything else was that the title was grammatically incorrect. It should have been If I Had Done It.

There are basically two kinds of conditional sentences. In one, where you talk about something that could be true, but you don’t know for sure. In this conditional, you don’t change the tenses.

If that’s what you think, you’re crazy. (It’s possible that that’s what you think, but I don’t know for sure.)

If Jane went to the party yesterday, she saw Frank. (But I don’t know if she went.)

The other kind is something we could call the contrary-to-fact conditional. We are talking about something we know is not true or hasn’t happened.

If I thought so, I would be crazy. (I don’t think so, so I’m not crazy.)

If Jane had gone to the party, she would have seen Frank. (She didn’t go, and so didn’t see him.)

You’ll notice here that we change the tenses. If we’re talking about the present, we use the past tense. (I don’t think so, but if I did think so …) And if we’re talking about the past, we use the past perfect. (She didn’t go, but if she had gone …)

When O.J. Simpson and Judith Regan called the book If I Did It, they were implying But I don’t do it. What they meant was, I didn’t do it, but if I had done it …

I learned my conditionals in high school in French class. We didn’t learn grammar in English class. It seems Dion has learned to think analytically about language, because the man seems to be struggling to make sense of a very grammatically mangled question.

The question should either have been “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do differently?” or “If you had been elected two and half years ago, what would you have done differently?” It’s illogical to think that something today could have an effect on the past. Dion struggles to understand if he should answer the question by talking about what he would do from now on to solve the problem, or if he should discuss what he would have done to prevent the problem in the first place. ( “If I have been [sic] Prime Minister two and half years ago, I would have had an agenda — let’s start again!” he says impatiently.)

There’s also a problem with the words have done, although I’m sure this never occurred to Dion. But it shows how little control the interviewer has over his language in this relatively short sentence. To have something done (this is called the causative) means that you arrange for someone else to do something for you. I’m having the house painted. When he asks, “What would you have done?”, this could also mean, “What would you have others do?” It would reasonable for someone who gave the interviewer more credit than he deserves to think that the question was, “If you became Prime Minister today, what you have others do?”

This is the only possible way the sentence can be interpreted so that it makes logical sense. “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done” is, as I’ve said, illogical because no present action or state can have an effect on the past. In order for the sentence to be logical, the second clause would have to refer to the present or future, and in that case the only possible meaning would be, “what would you have others do”.

So, we have a sentence that could mean three different things, and what is passed off to us as confusion is really Dion trying to clarify this. It’s a shame that the story was spun in such a way that the people who could not properly put a question together exposed Dion as someone who was sensitive enough to language that he was aware of the question’s problems.

UPDATE – 26 December 2008

The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has appointed 18 new Conservative Senators, in what the Globe and Mail has called “the biggest single day of Senate appointments in Canadian history”.

[C]ritics accused Mr. Harper of hypocrisy in appointing a list of individuals known primarily for their service to the Conservative Party, including a former Quebec separatist. They also questioned the legitimacy of the appointments, given that Mr. Harper has suspended Parliament until late January in order to avoid defeat in the House of Commons. [My italics.]

Among those appointed is

career broadcaster Mike Duffy, who until last week hosted a daily hour-long political show called Mike Duffy Live.

Thanks to Frankie the C for the email and link.

UPDATE No. 2 – 28 May 2009

Thanks to Rick for sending me this article from the CBC, which states:

The arbiter of ethics on the airwaves ruled Wednesday that CTV violated industry codes when it included three false starts in a broadcast of an election interview with then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found CTV Atlantic’s 6 p.m. newscast was “discourteous and inconsiderate” when it ran the awkward false starts after the anchor promised Dion they wouldn’t be broadcast.

It also found the question that was put to Dion “confusing.”

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