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October 31, 2000, Tuesday
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Decoding the Candidates

By Steven Pinker

Next week voters will consider two major candidates for president who have spent many months talking to them. The voices and messages are familiar enough by now. But what has also become clear is that one of these two men has fought a long and losing battle with the English language.

George W. Bush has a disconcerting habit of saying things that don't mean anything (''expectations rise above that which is expected,'' ''more and more of our imports come from overseas'') and an even more disconcerting habit of saying the opposite of what he means (''100 percent of the people will get the death tax,'' ''if you say you're going to do something and don't do it, that's trustworthiness'').

The Bushism is challenging the malapropism as an eponym for lexical near-misses: ''a system that suckles kids through,'' ''quotas vulcanize society.'' Even cliches betray him: ''We ought to make the pie higher.''

Yet as lists of Bushisms circulate on the Internet, Mr. Bush's support seems little damaged. A bit of background on how language works can help explain why Mr. Bush's gaffes don't seem to have hurt him.

First, many people know they can't believe everything they read. Dan Quayle did not say on a trip to Latin America that he wished he had paid more attention to Latin in high school. The story quickly jumped from a comedian's monologue to the ''Quayle quotes'' making the electronic rounds.

Also, anyone who has experienced the horror of seeing his spoken words transcribed knows that speech is meant to be heard, not read. Even among the articulate, verbal give-and-take is filled with false starts, garbles and statements that make no sense out of context. In 1991 the Supreme Court upheld the common practice among journalists of doctoring the wording of quotations, acknowledging that to reproduce a person's words verbatim often is to make him look bad. Transcribed speech can look especially ludicrous when it comes from a sleep-deprived candidate trying to sound lofty enough to win sympathy and vague enough not to tie his own hands.

The comprehension of spoken language is a forgiving mental process that seldom takes things literally. Only a snarky 13-year-old replies to ''Can you pass the salt?'' with ''Yes, I'm able to do that,'' and even careful listeners have trouble figuring out what is wrong with the sentence ''This study fills a much-needed gap.'' That is why Mr. Bush's bloopers have lost him so little support among the television-watching public (to the bewilderment of ink-stained wretches): most people hear right through them. When he says ''we ought to raise the age at which juveniles can have a gun'' or ''babies out of wedlock is a very difficult chore for mom and baby alike,'' language lovers may wince, but everyone knows what he means.

A man who must rely on the charity of listeners to get his message across may not seem like an ideal president. But consider the other extreme: a man so verbally sharp that he can exploit the charity of listeners to keep his message hidden -- for example, by using words like ''alone'' and ''sex,'' as Bill Clinton did, in narrow legalistic senses that differ from those assumed by ordinary listeners.

And the speech style of Mr. Bush's opponent, Al Gore, has problems of its own. Psycholinguists have a name for it: ''motherese,'' the language addressed to small children and other incompetent listeners. Polling shows many people are far less forgiving of what they take to be Mr. Gore's condescending tone than they are of Mr. Bush's garbles.

Where do these speech styles come from? Mr. Bush may have come by his inarticulateness honestly: he is the son of a man who referred to a spotted owl as ''that little furry-feathery guy'' and once explained, ''I hope I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-racism.'' Mr. Gore, for his part, may be afraid that dry and abstruse ideas will bore or confuse his listeners.

Do the language habits of a candidate matter? A president's words, well-chosen and convincingly delivered, can be a powerful tool at home and abroad: ''with malice toward none''; ''a day that will live in infamy''; ''ask not''; ''Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.'' One of the decisions voters must make is which candidate is better able to use this important lever of influence.

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