Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her books include The Argument Culture and, most recently, I Only Say This Because I Love You.

Recent Articles

We the Government

When we recall the now-famous incantation, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” we focus on its content: John F. Kennedy invited Americans to become active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, American democracy. But the word that stands out for me is the personal pronoun “your.” How different jfk's message would have been had he exhorted Americans to ask what they can do for “the” country. In the word “your” resides the personal connection between citizens and nation that has broken down, replaced by an adversarial stance of citizens toward their government. Presidential historian Robert Dallek cites a comment someone made to Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR's death: “I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government.” Here, too, the personal pronouns leaped out at me: “my” government, hearing him speak “to me.” In their eagerness to turn voters against the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy--the party that gave...

Let Them Eat Words

I'm one of many Democrats who watch in frustration (mixed with a touch of awe) as Republicans win with words, even as the labels they devise for their policies distort or belie the facts. Take the repeal of the estate tax. An "estate" sounds like a large amount of money. Indeed, before President Bush persuaded Congress to legislate a phase out of the estate tax, only the largest 2 percent of estates were subject to this tax. But change the name to "death tax" and many more Americans become sympathetic to repeal. After all, everyone dies. Death is bad enough without being taxed. How many would get all worked up about an exceedingly rare abortion procedure (that the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated represents less than one-fifth of 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States in 2000)? But attach the name "partial-birth abortion" and a second-trimester fetus becomes a half-born baby. Legislation to outlaw the vaguely described medical procedure then becomes another...