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A deal “that” “you people” can agree to?

[ 49 ] July 19, 2012 |

If those on the right stop insisting that the antecedent of Obama’s “that” was “business” when it was clearly “roads and bridges” and sundry, those of us on the left will recognize that the subject of Ann Romney’s “you people” was clearly the mainstream media. Work for you?

Of course not.

As to Obama:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.

Antecedents can co-refer across sentence boundaries in English. They just can. (See what I did there?) Moreover, the nearest potential antecedent to a pronoun isn’t necessarily the actual antecedent. Consider:

The monkey took the banana and ate it.

The monkey became sick after it ate the banana.

In both cases “the banana” is closer to “it” than “the monkey” is, but in the first sentence “it” refers to “the banana,” whereas in the second sentence “it” refers to “the monkey.” This isn’t that difficult people. The “this” in the previous sentence? It doesn’t even have a referent. It refers back to the situation of entire text. Now it’s doing so over three sentence. It can do it over four. It can do so to infinity if I so choose. That’s just how it works. In short:

Neither inclusion in the same sentence nor proximity to a pronoun is definitive proof that Obama’s “that” refers to “business,” and context makes a strong case that Obama’s “that” referred across more than one sentence to a catalog of antecedents including “somebody,” “a great teacher,” another “somebody,” the “American system,” yet another “somebody,” and “roads and bridges.” “That” refers to all that in the same way the second “that” in this sentence does. Simple as that.

As to Ann Romney: the phrase “you people” only works as an epithet when it’s directed at someone. If I write that I’m going to tell you people about “you people,” none of you people will be offended because I wasn’t trying to diminish you people by calling you “you people.” If Mitt Romney had said “you people” during his speech to the NAACP, that’d be a different story. But Ann Romney was being interviewed on ABC News, meaning “you people” clearly refers to the mainstream media so beloved by conservatives everywhere. Which means she might have been using it as an epithet targeted at the mainstream media establishment.

All of which is only to say: I’ve now devoted the last half hour of my life to writing about “that” and “you people,” and I hope that you people enjoy it, because I never want to do so again.


Comments (49)

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  1. Pith Helmet says:

    Fucking pronouns, how do they work?

  2. rea says:

    “We’ve given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we live our life.”

    Well, yeah, I understand that “you people” means the people she was addressing, meaning the news media.

    But it’s still a damn obnoxious thing to say. The news media aren’t primarily the ones who need to know and understand a presidential candidate–the American voters do. And ordinarily, candidates (and their wives) don’t get to be the ones to decide what the voters need to know about them, particularly when it comes to information that candidates usually disclose.

    Just imagine if Hillary Clinton had said something like this during the Whitewater frenzy

    • SEK says:

      Just imagine if Hillary Clinton had said something like this during the Whitewater frenzy

      That’s not a valid analogy, because anything I imagine Hillary saying during the Whitewater frenzy qualifies as inflammatory.

  3. Linnaeus says:

    And who says we don’t need English Ph.D.s anymore?

  4. Jncc says:

    I’ve never understood why the phrase “you people” is offensive… Even when Perot first made it famous.

    It does imply a separation between the speaker and the audience, but that isn’t offensive by itself.

    • SEK says:

      It’s older than that, I’m almost certain, but I’m at a loss to puzzle out its etymology because I can’t figure out what to look up in the OED to find it.

      • Icarus Wright says:

        The etymology of ‘people.’

        late 13c., “humans, persons in general,” from Anglo-Fr. people, O.Fr. peupel, from L. populus “people,” of unknown origin, possibly from Etruscan. Replaced native folk. Meaning “body of persons comprising a community” first recorded late 13c. in Anglo-French; meaning “common people, masses” (as distinguished from the nobility) first recorded c.1300 in Anglo-French. The verb is late 15c. (intrans.), c.1500 (trans.). The word was adopted after c.1920 by Communist totalitarian states to give a spurious sense of populism to their governments. Legal phrase The People vs., in U.S. cases of prosecution under certain laws, dates from 1801. People of the Book “those whose religion entails adherence to a book of divine revelation (1834) translates Arabic Ahl al-Kitab.

        …and folk
        O.E. folc “common people, laity; men; people, nation, tribe; multitude; troop, army,” from P.Gmc. *folkom (cf. O.Fris. folk, M.Du. volc, Ger. Volk “people”), from P.Gmc. *fulka-, perhaps originally “host of warriors;” cf. O.N. folk “people,” also “army, detachment;” and Lith. pulkas “crowd,” O.C.S. pluku “division of an army,” both believed to have been borrowed from Proto-Germanic. O.E. folcstede could mean both “dwelling-place” and “battlefield.” Some have attempted to link the word to Gk. plethos “multitude;” L. plebs “people, mob,” populus “people” or vulgus; but OED and Klein discount this theory but it is accepted in Watkins. The plural form has been usual since 17c. Superseded in most senses by people.

        O.E. folc was commonly used in forming compounds, such as folccwide “popular saying,” folcgemot “town or district meeting;” folcwoh “deception of the public.”

      • JP Stormcrow says:

        Here is a Google n-gram for “you people”. No that it tells you a whole lot since there are other constructions in which it can be used (for instance “you people deserve all the credit” in a political speech to supporters). I did do some sampling of the Google book searches in various time periods, and although it does occasionally appear in the “separating” way in the 19th century, it was quite occasional, and almost always in a context like a visitor to another country addressing its inhabitants.

    • James E. Powell says:

      Except that when someone says “you people” in reference to a press/media person, it is surely meant to be derogatory.

      • swearyanthony says:

        You might think the media would resent the condescension but it’s ok, it was from a Maker, not a Moocher.

        (unrelated, but has anyone noticed how those state and local governments who bravely epitomize Galtian principles by slashing all local services go screaming for help when the consequences of say, not having a fire service staffed properly, bite them on the ass? That is, they are immediately mooching off the people who actually pay taxes? Who’s the parasites now?)

    • My reaction to the phrase is at least partially conditioned by years of Passover Seders:

      The wicked son asks: What is this to you? To you, and not to him. Separating himself from the Jewish people, had he been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed.

      It’s an alienating phrase, drawing a sharp distinction between the speaker and some imagined, uniform collective that has offended or failed.

    • wengler says:

      I’d rather hear ‘you people’ rather than the insufferable ‘folks’.

      • mark f says:

        Folks and their ilk are the backbone of this country.

        • JohnR of the Aberdeen Folks says:

          “Folks and their ilk”

          I am the Folk of that ilk, and the head of clan Folk. We have a tartan (Green Folk Plaid), a ceremonial singing style (Folk Music) and numerous clan festivals all over this great nation. We may not be Highlanders (Hell, we may not even be technically Scottish), but we’re tough, we Folks.

  5. repsac3 says:

    Obama certainly could’ve been more clear, and by not more carefully choosing his words, he opened himself up to the willful misunderstanding of those out to get him any way they can. Whitey do that? Whitey make it that much easier for those people?

    That said, anyone who sees the whole section of the speech in context, and still claims Obama is slamming entrepreneurs as not having a hand in their own success, is pretty obviously a liar.

  6. TBogg says:

    Outside of the fact that she said it to a black lady, by extension Ann is saying that the media which, in theory, delivers valuable information to the voters by which they can make our voting decisions is not entitled to said information and therefore us.

    So it was a “fuck you”, once removed.

    • SEK says:

      by extension Ann is saying that the media which, in theory, delivers valuable information to the voters by which they can make our voting decisions is not entitled to said information and therefore us.

      You’re crediting her with an ability to think strategically that I seriously doubt she possesses.

      • Teague O'Roarke says:

        Actually, I don’t think it’s a matter of thinking at all. It’s either laziness or annoyance to use a collective term like “you people” when responding to an individual. It seems like politeness to be specific about who you are addressing. Like: “we told the media all it needs…” “or the American people.” Yeah, I know — it’s really the pretence of politeness we’re talking about most of the time. Politician’s wives are supposed to be a little practiced at this game. Ann Romney sounds like she be can’t be bothered.

      • DrDick says:

        I think it is more reflexive plutocratic privilege.

  7. Manju says:

    Al Gore invested in the information superhighway. If you people got a blog, you didn’t built that.

    That giant sucking sound is coming out of your lockbox. Stop blaming the Mexicans.

    • SEK says:

      Inapt comparison:

      The Army built ARPANET beginning in the ’60s. Microsoft popularized GUI in the ’90s. AT&T laid down fiber optic cables in the late ’90s. If you people got a blog, you didn’t built that.

      There you go.

      • rea says:

        One of the annoying things about this is that what Obama was saying was simply platitudes that every schoolchild used to be taught.

        “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”–Newton

        • swearyanthony says:

          Of course that famous quote was actually a vicious slam on his rival Hooke who was not, ahem, vertically blessed. I think one of Bryson’s books has a fun chapter on that feud.

  8. marc sobel says:

    Yes, the problem with the Rmoney campaign lying is really caused by their grammatical shortcomings.

  9. Mike S. says:

    lol, bookmarked

  10. bradp says:

    The “Somebody else made that happen.” that comes next is extremely poorly worded as well.

    And as for this:

    The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

    It would seem to imply that Obama was referring to the business rather than the roads. It is also incredibly wrong.

    • mark f says:

      “The Internet”:Facebook::Roads & bridges:FedEx

      • bradp says:

        Thhe internet is networks, protocols, fiberoptic cables, and content. The government is responsible for a miniscule fraction of that.

        And to the extent that the government innovated the internet, they sat on it without allowing private access for decades. In fact they spent a good portion of that trying to push heavily standardized protocols that ultimately failed.

  11. mark f says:

    I have seen Charles Krauthamer, Conor Friedersdorf and now Jonah Goldberg argue that “only the straw-men conservatives of Obama’s imagination yearn for an America with no roads and bridges.”


    Except the statement wasn’t meant to rebut someone who doesn’t want to build bridges; it was to rebut “What have the Romans done for us?”

  12. Nigel says:

    And that, you people, is that.

  13. Brian O'C says:

    A charming little piece that has me comment for the first time at LGF, though I have read you people (hee hee hee) for years. When I teach antecedant pronouns I give my students a handout with some text and make them do the circles and arrows, which pronoun relates to which referent. Also precedent pronouns, as in English a pronoun can refer to a noun it precedes, often separated by quite a bit of text. Difficult for my native Chinese speaking students, as Chinese is much more pronoun ‘light’ than English. Just one of those many things I never thought about until I was in the classroom teaching.

    “and I hope that you people enjoy that, because I never want to do that again”

    I think the above line is funnier with three thats in it.

    Peace & Keep up the good work!!

  14. Brian O'C says:

    Ooops… that should be LGM…yikes!

  15. Matt says:

    “… because I never want to do so that again.”


  16. Pastafarian says:

    So you’re assuming that our Harvard-educated president used a singular pronoun (“that”) to refer to plural antecedents (“roads and bridges”)?

    That strikes me as unlikely. But then again, I’m not racist. I don’t assume that a man is incapable of proper English because he’s black. Do you suppose he says to Michelle: “We be goin golfin”?

    You can pretend he didn’t say what he clearly said all you want. Anyone capable of listening heard what he said and knew what he meant; and this latest slip of the veil might just cost him the election.

    • repsac3 says:

      Just happened back here, and saw Pasta’s comment… Thought it deserved a reply…

      If the “singular” nature of the pronoun was said in a vacuum, I might agree with this simplistic analysis… But it wasn’t, and common sense has to play some role, here.

      The “no individual creates their own infrastructure” argument is not new. It’s not new this year, and it’s not new to this candidate. And the argument is always the same, hat ever the year, and whoever the proponent.” YES, you started your own widget factory, but you had to rely on others who did and continue to pave your way. The city built the roads on which your raw materials come in and your finished widgets go out to market. Other people enabled your mail service; protected your factory from theft, defended this country in time of war, allowing your business o thrive, …, …”

      The point isn’t whether or not you agree with the argument; it’s that the script doesn’t change, and it’s always about the infrastructure entrepreneurs don’t build themselves, not about the businesses they do.

      Second, there’s the gestural context. Obama gestures when taking about the teachers, the roads, the bridges… But not the business. But when he says”you didn’t build that” he gestures again to the same place he did when he talked about the roads and bridges…almost like he was pointing them out as he said the word “that.” The non-verbal context is clear.

      Third, there is no upside to saying that entrepreneurs don’t build their own businesses, so even on the off chance that that is what he secretly believes, why the hell would he say it out loud, just this once, and in such an ambiguous way? It defies logic.

      Believe as you will, Pasta… But if I have to choose between thinking that the Harvard graduate accidentally used a singular pronoun to refer to two or more things, and thinking that he deviated from such a common liberal communitarian argument to intentionally insult a such a large segment of the voting population in an election year, well, I know which possibility makes more sense to me… YMMV…

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