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He perhaps didn't build that sentence very well

A grammar geek has to love it when 'syntax' makes headlines.

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It's been called the fundamental issue of this year's presidential election: What role should government play in people's lives? The Democrats paint the two worldviews as "We're all in this together" versus "You're on your own." The Republicans see the man in the White House as a socialist whose reflexive response to any problem is to propose a new federal government program.

Ears attuned to the Political Sound Bite Warning Network pricked up at a comment President Obama made July 13:

"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. Somebody else made that happen. 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."

Once we heard those words out of the president's mouth, "you didn't build that," it was clear we would be hearing them again and again. He has stood by the essence of his comment, though not the way he expressed it. "Obviously, I have regrets for my syntax," he said Sept. 5, "but not for the point, because everyone who was there watching knows exactly what I was saying."

It gladdened the heart of this grammar geek to see "syntax" in headlines. But was "syntax" really the right word? Just what is syntax, anyway? Etymologically, syntax comes from two Greek elements, "syn" meaning "together," as in synergy ("working together"), and "tax," referring to ordering or arranging. Taxidermy is, literally, an arrangement of skin.


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