The most important edit in Bill Clinton’s DNC speech?

© grandeduc - Fotolia.comLast week at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton delivered a speech to remember. It was pointed, impassioned, and at just under 50 minutes, filled with Clinton’s own ad-libs and asides that tested the skills of his teleprompter operator. (He added 2,300 words to his 3,200-word speech — a 72% increase.)

This set the Internet a-Twittering about Bill Clinton, master ad-libber. News organizations released a text vs. audio comparison of his now famous DNC speech, revealing the thought process of a great orator who knows how to use language in a way that instills agency and inspires action.

Clinton made a number of noteworthy edits on the fly. He changed “should vote for Barack Obama” to “must vote for Barack Obama,” conveying a sense of urgency. He used “we” instead of “you,” which says, “we’re in this together.” He added in no-nonsense, conversational lead-ins like, “You see, we believe that X” or “Now, we all know that X,” setting up the vivid portrait of contrast he painted between the two candidates.

But in my mind, one of the best and most important edits was also one of the smallest. It happened at the very beginning of his speech (see the full edited transcript):

A man who stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs were created and saved he saved or created, there were still millions more waiting, trying to feed their children and worried about feeding their own kids, trying to keep their hopes alive.

Clinton went from the passive voice (Jobs were created and saved…) to the active voice (He saved or created jobs…). Now, you probably remember the passive voice being maligned by your middle school English teacher (Grammar Girl explains the difference between active and passive voice, if you want details) — but why is this so important?

As Constance Hale put it in her New York Times column, “In the active voice, the subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.” So it’s a question of agency. WHO created and saved these jobs? If “jobs were created and saved,” it leaves open for interpretation who should get credit for this action. Maybe it was the Democrats, maybe it was the Republicans, maybe it was just a matter of luck.

By saying “he saved or created” these jobs, Clinton is giving the credit to President Obama without a doubt. It empowers him as a job creator, rather than making him a passive observer of something outside of his control. It’s a small but significant edit at a time when job creation (and Obama’s ability to make it happen) is at the forefront of the 2012 election.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the passive voice is always wrong. Sometimes, like in certain kinds of scientific and academic writing, it makes sense to diminish yourself or the “actor” in the sentence. For example, “The monkeys were found to respond well to X” rather than “We found the monkeys responded well to X.” In this case, the researchers don’t want to insert themselves too much into the writing because it distracts the reader from their findings. This style often makes sense in crime or accident reports as well.

But as with all writing, there should be a conscious choice behind the voice you use. Remember, there’s a big difference between saying “I made a mistake” vs. “Mistakes were made.” The former is a disarming statement of strength that’s likely to get people’s attention — and hopefully earn their forgiveness. The latter is slimy and slippery, suggesting that no one is willing to take charge or own up to bad decisions. In general, passive voice isn’t the best way for politicians or other leaders to win over trust.

So when in doubt, if you’re speaking in public, go active like Clinton does. Here’s a little mnemonic device to help you out: Active voice is for agents. Passive voice is for pushovers.

Top 3 political spelling blunders immortalized by the media

'I'm With Mitt' iPhone app

When it comes to politics, semantics matter. Every word, every turn of phrase, is subject to media scrutiny. Sometimes it seems there’s practically a bad grammar beat, where reporters and bloggers eagerly await the opportunity to gleefully pounce on our less eloquent politicians. George W. Bush perhaps learned this more harshly than any other president, having entire blogs, columns and even a poem devoted to his bizarre mistakes and malapropisms (a.k.a. Bushisms).

Now, as you probably suspect, I’m a stickler for good spelling and grammar. Using the most appropriate words, or a particular sentence structure, is essential to communicating ideas with precision and clarity. If you can articulate something well, it means you understand it deeply. So, when politicians butcher spelling, grammar, or simple sayings, it makes us wonder (fairly or not) if they’re totally full of BS.

As one political convention ends and another gets underway, I thought I’d take this opportunity to round up what I deem the top three political spelling blunders in recent memory, with the caveat that social media and a 24-hour-news cycle magnify every gaffe nowadays to epic proportions in 10 seconds flat. (Maybe President Tyler couldn’t spell Tippecanoe to save his life, but we’ll never know because it’s not immortalized on the Web or on TV for all to see…) So here they are, in no particular order:

Dan Quayle misspells ‘potato’: Dan Quayle should count his lucky stars he wasn’t Vice President in the age of Twitter (Joe Biden, of course, hasn’t been so fortunate).  Twenty years later, he’s perhaps best remembered for a fateful day in 1992 when he visited a classroom in New Jersey. A boy steps up to the chalkboard, Quayle asks him to spell ‘potato,’ and he writes it out (correctly, mind you) in neat cursive.  Dan Quayle “corrects” the boy’s spelling and has him add an ‘e’ on the end. Dumbfounded, the boy complies and writes ‘potatoe’ on the board – at which point Quayle starts clapping and congratulating the boy for getting it “right” the second time around. Talk show hilarity ensues, and Dan Quayle takes his place in the pantheon of frequently mocked politicians.

Sarah Palin misspells ‘repudiate’… or maybe it was ‘refute’: Palin is perhaps the only other politician to be lambasted as much as Bush for, well, making no sense whatsoever. Tina Fey had a field day using Palin’s own mystifying sequences of words, which I won’t even dare call sentences, to parody her on SNL. To be fair, it’s possible to be a brilliant writer yet freeze up when it comes to speaking in front of an audience. And Palin, in fact, compared herself to a certain brilliant writer named William Shakespeare when she made up the word ‘refudiate’ on Twitter (she meant ‘refute’, FYI). It even went on to become word of the year in 2010. Brava, Ms. Palin — or should I say, ShakesPalin.

(Note: Bushisms including “misunderestimate” didn’t make the list because they aren’t spelling errors, per se — they’re just completely baffling non-words.)

Mitt Romney’s campaign misspells America: It started as an attempt to reach tech-savvy voters with a logo calling for “A Better America” that Romney supporters could superimpose over images they posted across social media. It ended as a nightmarish example of the importance of spell-check, when the campaign released their “I’m With Mitt” app calling for “A Better Amercia” … oops. It went on to become a positively hilarious Internet meme with more parodies than serious posters – and it spread faster than, well, the Romney campaign furiously trying to fix their spate of spelling errors.  We know Romney likes to fire people, but I’m not sure what happened to the poor staffer who let the famous ‘Amercia’ typo slip. Last I read, Romney’s looking for a copy editor.

As ridiculous as these errors might seem, no election should be determined on the basis of egregious typos (*gasp!*) – or even what might appear to be a total disregard for the English language.  But with the current campaign-season circus, it can sometimes be hard to cut through the semantic crap to get to a kernel of truth.

Sure, everybody makes mistakes sometimes, and not every typo means you can’t trust a candidate. But it does seem like sloppy communication is on the rise among public figures you’d expect to be most cautious (ahem, Anthony Weiner). Maybe they’re just behind the times. Or maybe these kinds of careless errors are a reminder that social media and a 24-hour-news cycle are contributing to a culture in which candidates often worry more about media attention and less about delivering a meaningful message.