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Daily Pilot

A Word, Please: Politicians are great grammar faux pas fodder

By June Casagrande

9:46 PM PDT, August 31, 2012

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Say what you will about election season. But for some people, it's a boon.

Poised to profit from the nonstop bickering and blustering are network advertising sales reps, political pundits, earplug manufacturers, comedy writers and liquor stores.

Add professional language geeks to the lists. Since the days when Dan Quayle extended a welcome to "President Bush, Mrs. Bush and my fellow astronauts," elections have been a time when a candidate's every little word gets pounced on, scrutinized and criticized — much to the glee of nitpickers like me.

Not long ago, there was fun to be had with the Romney camp's misspelling of "America." Now the Obama slogan "Forward." is drawing criticism. Or at least it's drawing reports that it's drawing criticism. As with any news item, you can never be sure how much "reaction" took place before reporters started calling experts asking for their reaction.

Don't see what's wrong with the slogan? It's not those quotation marks. Those are mine, used to indicate that I'm quoting the slogan. Nor is the word misspelled. Though it's easy to confuse "forward," which is a direction, with "foreword," which comes at the beginning of a book, the Obama campaign team got it right.

The problem with the slogan: the period.

"Those who brandish red pens for a living are divided on whether Mr. Obama's campaign slogan passes muster," the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month in an article about the period. Some experts, the newspaper reported, dubbed it grammatically incorrect because "Forward." is not a complete sentence. Others, like UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, say it is correct because "Forward." is an imperative sentence.

Actually, they're all wrong.

Let's start with the idea that "Forward." is an imperative sentence.

In grammar, an imperative is a command. "Pass the sugar." It's distinguished from declarative sentences, which are statements. "Joe passes the sugar." And it's different from interrogative sentences, which are questions. "Did Joe pass the sugar?"

In the imperative form "Pass the sugar," Joe is nowhere to be found because imperatives leave the subject implied. That's not a problem because the subject is always the same. It's "you." When you say, "Pass the sugar," the subject of the action is always an implied "you."

To qualify as complete, a sentence must have a subject and a verb. Paul quit. Ice cream melts. Jesus wept. So imperatives, which leave the subject implied, are the only ones that can be complete sentences with just one word. Go. Eat. March.

But is "Forward." an imperative sentence? No.

"Forward" is usually an adjective or an adverb. It can, at times, be a verb, for example in "You should forward that email." But according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, it is exclusively a transitive verb, which means it needs an object.

So "Forward." alone doesn't make any more sense than "Make." or "Reveal." They raise the questions: Reveal what? Make what? Forward what?

So "Forward." is not a complete sentence. Which brings us to the other criticism of the Obama slogan: Because "Forward." is not a complete sentence, it's an error to end it with a period.

As just about anyone who's ever read a book knows, this just isn't so. A unit of speech need not be a complete sentence to end with a period. Single words do so all the time, even in the best and most respected writing. They're called sentence fragments. "It is possible, in good usage, to write fragments," Garner's Modern American Usage explains.

So the Obama camp's period wasn't wrong. Period. But, personally, I think it was a bad call. The punctuation mark looks funny and adds nothing. Which may be why it's been disappearing from some of the campaign's printed materials.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.