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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fact Check Check: Tense tension.

Longtime readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that I criticize Michael Dobbs Washington Post Fact Check.

Just below I praised it as Dobbs courageously stood up to cticicism that he must be biased, because he had criticized the McCain campaign many times since he last criticized the Obama campaign. That was then.

Now he provides ballance awarding Obama 3 pinocchios for saying ""John McCain's chief advisor lobbies for oil companies, even from Russia and China. His campaign manager lobbies for corporations outsourcing American jobs." when, according to Dobbs he should have said "lobbied" or "has lobbied" because they are currently on leave from their lobbying firms. He writes

Excuse me, but verb tenses matter. "Lobbies" and "lobbied" or "has lobbied" carry two different meanings. I took McCain to task back in May when he claimed that "we have drawn down to pre-surge levels" in Iraq. It turned out that he was speaking prematurely: the full drawdown was still a couple of months away. The McCain campaign offered the "verb tense defense" to justify the senator's claim, ridiculing the distinction between "have" and "will" as a "matter of semantics."

Yes Mr Dobbs verb tenses do matter and "lobbies" does not mean the same thing as "is lobbying". Although the first is called the English present tense, the second is used to assert that an activity which is happening right now. The present tense is also used to refer to having the characteristic of doing something regularly (half an hour ago I could honestly say "I blog" but not "I am blogging"). Black lobbies means Black has lobbied and presumably will lobby again, it does not mean that Black is lobbying right now.

I suppose that, even if they weren't on leave, would Dobbs have objected, because the ad is shown at all hours and the guys must sleep sometimes so they can't be lobbying at all hours of the day and night. Notice they can lobby at all hours of the day and night, just not for all hours of the day and night for several consecutive days.

Notice I deliberately made a claim identical to Obama's above. I wrote "I criticize" even though my last post on Dobbs contained no criticism and I was explicitly ruling out this post as a possible referent)

The difference between the past tense and the future tense is not ambiguous in this way.

Would Dobbs nail himself if he wrote "has lobbied" when he should have written "lobbied" ? The meanings are not identical ("he has lobbied" has exactly the same meaning as "he has lobbied at least once in his life" while "he lobbied" does not have exactly the same meaning as "he lobbied at least once in his life" which is a very strange sentence which a native English speakers are much less likely to use than "he has lobbied at least once in his life" (and that is damn unlikely)).

Michael Dobbs' argument is just silly. His reason for making it is clear "I awarded the McCain campaign three Pinocchios for mixing up its verb tenses over the Iraq surge in May. Consistency demands the same verdict for Barack Obama." This is only true if the distinctions between all verb tense"

Not consistency, ballance.

Dobbs pretends that all tense distinctions are similar, because he is under great pressure to pretend that both Presidential campaigns are more similar than they are.

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