The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘I Will Do This, Whereas My Opponent Would Do That’: A Grammar Tip for the Politically Engaged

Candidates should talk about their own ideas, policies, and plans as much as possible. When they focus on their opponents instead, we say they’re attacking, but that’s just semantics. What they’re doing in fact is playing defense. They’re conceding that their opponent has the ball. He has succeeded in asserting himself as the subject of conversation. He’s gaining ground, or trying to. The other candidates try to stop him.

Here’s what they should not say: “This guy will . . . ” That implies they think he’ll win. Multiply that line millions of times — in speeches, on social media, in blog posts, in private conversations — and the prophecy is that much closer to being fulfilled.

People tend to vote for the candidate they think will win more than they tend to vote for a candidate they think will lose. Some of that is because we tend to convince ourselves that the candidate we think should win will win, but it works the other way, too, although few of us recognize when we’re doing it.

First we notice the candidate who appears most likely to win. Then, wanting to be on the winning side ourselves, we begin to form arguments for why he should win. God must have loved fair-weather fans, because he created so many of them. When you say “My candidate’s opponent will do this or that,” you’re directing them to the place you mean to warn them not to go.

That’s why you should say that “my candidate’s opponent would” do x, y, or z if he were president, not that he “will” do anything when he is. Save that latter formulation for the candidate you prefer. I make that revision, changing “will” to “would,” a lot when I edit the opinion pieces of others.

Some authors probably think I thereby weaken their language. A baseball writer once objected to my casting his sentences in what he called the passive voice, which no doubt he had been taught to avoid. He meant the subjunctive mood. He probably wanted to avoid that too, no matter what we call it, because it’s of course iffier than the indicative mood and, in English, usually wordier.

I understand the rationale for uttering stark statements along the lines of “When Sauron is president, he will impose crippling taxes on churches with beliefs that conflict with his own.” You want to scare your listeners a little. You want to rouse them to fight your opponent. It would be better if you didn’t have to talk about him at all, but if you do, at least avoid implying that he’s their future, which it would be in their self-interest to accept and start figuring out how to adapt to.


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