What you can learn about English from Obama and Medvedev’s mistake
Last week’s meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accidentally provided a great example of how word choice can affect the way a sentence is understood.
During a conversation about nuclear weapons in South Korea, Obama and Medvedev did not realize that a microphone was still on, and had a conversation that was meant to be private, but was broadcast over television.
Starting at about 43 seconds in the video below, you’ll see this conversation played several times. The clip below is from a U.S. comedy show called “The Daily Show” that makes comedy out of daily news events.
Watch the video, and then read some excerpts from it below.
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What Medvedev actually said to Obama was “I transmit this information to Vladimir.” First of all, he should have had the modal verb “will” in the sentence, as in: “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Beyond that, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart points out that Medvedev’s wording makes his statement sound “sinister,” as if it had been said by Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films. Or as if it should be spoken into a secret spy’s “shoe phone,” as Stewart says. The particular problem here is the word “transmit.”
Stewart points out “All he’s really saying is ‘oh, alright, I’ll tell him.” But the word transmit is a very technical, formal sounding word, that is typically used when we are talking about signals. Something about using this word that should only be used with radio, television, or shoe phone signals, makes the sentence sound sinister.
Medvedev could have made the phrase sound less formal, and less sinister, by using a phrasal verb. For example:
I will pass this information along to Vladimir. (to pass – something – along)
I will let Vladimir know. (to let – someone – know)
Or he could have just said: I’ll tell Vladimir.I transmit this message to Vladimir.
So what can you learn from this? Well, don’t get too worried. While some silly people might have actually thought that there was something evil happening, most people realize that non-native speakers of any language sometimes miss subtleties like these. Second, this is a good reason to study your phrasal verbs. In a one-on-one situation, between two equals, as in Obama and Medvedev’s meeting, a phrasal verb would have created the perfect tone.
Finally, in the video above, after talking about this particular sentence, Jon Stewart wonders whether all of the past problems between Russia and the U.S. could have been caused by the way Russians speak English. He then gives three example sentence pairs, with a very normal sounding sentence, and another version that has the same meaning, but sound sinister. Listen to them and see if you can understand how he changes them.