Monday, December 22, 2008

The uninhabited clause (3)

In previous posts (1), (2), I have discussed the uninhabited clause: a main clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

In everyday, non-technical speech or writing, an uninhabited clause is usually more difficult to understand than an inhabited clause. And an uninhabited clause usually sounds more academic and theoretical than an inhabited clause.

Politicians often use uninhabited clauses in a sneaky way: to insinuate rather than state directly.

For example, here is the last paragraph of a recent speech by Barack Obama:

“Now is the time to confront this challenge [‘climate change,’ which Mr. Obama appears to think is a threat to the human race] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious. Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am President, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.”

That paragraph consists of eleven sentences with eleven main clauses. The first seven main clauses are uninhabited; the last four are inhabited. (In the last clause, the implied subject is “I” – “I thank you.”)

The uninhabited clauses command the listener (or reader) via insinuation: they do not state the commands directly. They also conceal the authority for the commands and the evidence (if any) that the commands are based on.

For example, consider the first sentence: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.”

The intelligent reader immediately thinks of several questions: Who says this is a challenge? On what evidence is he saying it? Who says we have to confront it? On what authority? Assuming that we have to confront it, who says we have to confront it now? On what authority? What is the proof that the cost-benefit calculation is more favorable now than it will be later? And who are “we,” anyway? And who says this confrontation will be totally successful, as insinuated by the phrase “once and for all”?

That’s just a start; you can probably think of several additional questions. And each of the next six clauses similarly raises several questions in the mind of an intelligent reader.

To sum up, the uninhabited clause is an ideal construction for insinuation. Politicians love it because it helps them (1) fool unintelligent people into doing what they would refuse to do if they gave the matter a moment’s thought; (2) escape responsibility when the insinuated advice proves wasteful or counterproductive. The politician merely has to say, “Just read my speech again; where did I specifically tell you to do that?”

The Takeaway: If you are not a politician, don’t use a lot of uninhabited clauses: it can make you sound like a politician. If you are a politician, I advise you to stop visiting this blog; it will only continue to infuriate you.

The uninhabited clause (1)
The uninhabited clause (2)

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