February 03, 2008

Indefinite Definite Descriptions

via Henry Farrell, this piece by Ron Klain contains a weird sentence:

Instead, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the two candidates who have drawn some of the sharpest criticism on progressive blogs, are the only ones who will make it to Super Tuesday.

It's weird partly because it ignores the obvious explanation why bloggers might focus their criticism on Obama and Clinton. But also because of this phrase:

the two candidates who have drawn some of the sharpest criticism on progressive blogs

What does that mean exactly? How do you figure out which are "the" two candidates that have drawn "some" of the sharpest criticism?

The "the... some" construction need not be impenetrable, as in:

the two Democratic candidates who have been endorsed by some sitting Senators

which picks out Obama and Clinton, as the only candidates who've been endorsed by any sitting Senators. (I think it reads better without "some," though.) But clearly Klain doesn't mean that, because the only way that makes sense is if there are (or could be) some Senators who didn't endorse anyone. And in the original example, there can't be any "sharpest criticism" that isn't directed at any of the candidates, since what we're talking about is criticism of the candidates.

Effectively, "the" makes it sound as though Klain is making a stronger assertion than he is; as though Clinton and Obama have a special place of disfavor. What I suspect happened is that he wrote or thought "the two candidates who have drawn the sharpest criticism" and realized that that was exaggerated, so he added "some of" without realizing that this made his definite description indefinite. (And yes, this is a nitpick.)

[Ari says to post more, to which I say in order to post more I'd have to post at all. And, if you ask me to post more, you get posts like this. And explanations about how I don't post.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 3, 2008 06:59 AM

And see, I like this post. So there. But then again, I'm quite the picker of nits. Though never very careful in my own prose. There is another option: move West and join our blog. Also: become an historian. And where does the "an" come from? So stupid.

Posted by: Ari at February 3, 2008 11:17 AM

He should have said "two of the candidates who have drawn some of the sharpest criticism on progressive blogs." Then it would have been perfectly consistent. It also would have been perfectly free of content, but if you read it quickly, you'd think he was saying they got the most criticism. It would be the perfect phrase for a political blog - it leaves a distinct impression, but you only see that it can't be held to a standard of meaning if you look closely.

The "an" in "an historian" is only required or appropriate if you pronounce 'istorian with an affected Oxbridge accent - the rest of us plebes are allowed to say "a historian." You think I'm making this up, but the New Fowler's English Usage actually agrees with me. Okay, they don't specifically blame Oxbridge, but they mention the lack of aspiration, and blame Evelyn Waugh for the atrocious and now deprecated "an hotel."

Interestingly, one says "ahistorical" and would never say "anhistorical," although there are a few other such words (usually with a Greek root, like "anhydrous"). I take this as confirmation that whoever first said "ahistorical" didn't think if one consonant was good, two consonants must be twice as good.

Posted by: Ben at February 8, 2008 11:20 PM
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