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Parsing Chris Christie

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CHRIS CHRISTIE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable," N.J. Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."

As the George Washington Bridge traffic mayhem scheme bubbled to the national media surface, Christie -- usually glib and never camera-shy -- issued a written statement, inherently without inflection or emphasis.

As certain people (on both sides of the political fence) have read it aloud on the air, they've imposed an interpretation on it -- much as an actor offers a "line reading" to convey an emotion or a sense of doubt, irony, and so on.

I think they may have misread these two sentences.

As a professional writer/editor and a veteran actor, I'd like to offer what I feel might be more accurate interpretations -- based on their syntax -- of what these two sentences actually meant, instead of simply buying into their verbal cloaks.

In the first sentence, the phrase "for the first time" is placed in the middle; that syntax suggests it could modify the end of the sentence (the predicate) just as easily as it might modify the beginning (the subject). Shifting that phrase one word to the left or right would clarify the intended meaning:

"What I've seen for the first time today is unacceptable."

"What I've seen today is for the first time unacceptable."

As written, the intent is left to the reader's inference.

The second part of this quote has, I believe, been completely misinterpreted.

"I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."

The "not only" is the key element; it calls out for the proverbial second shoe to drop after the comma. The beginning of the sentence, given the syntax, implicitly places it at the start of the second clause:

"I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but [I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that] this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."

That raises the question: Were the sadness and outrage because they were done without his knowledge? That is, did he want in on the large-scale prank? That's what the wording would suggest.

On Thursday morning, Christie announced he had fired his chief of staff for her role in the GWB debacle.

In time we'll (probably) see whether the governor was complicit or not. The point here is about clarity in messaging. Wednesday's statement -- again, offered without the benefit of vocal inflection -- lends itself to speculation about its intent. Was it deliberately murky, intended to hide the truth in plain sight, as it were?

Lesson for writers: Syntax matters, and ambiguity can foster misinterpretation and even distrust.