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Sometimes, It's How You Say It

This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Democratic Convention Guide.

Convention speeches can catapult a politician to stardom, as happened for Barack Obama following his 2004 keynote address in Boston. But, as with any political speech, they also pose reputational risks if a comment is taken the wrong way. So, conservatives will be listening closely to everything the Democrats say this week.

Just consider the brouhaha that followed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s campaign speech in Virginia last month in which he decried the power of big banks and their close connections to the GOP, telling a largely black audience, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."

The chains comment got the attention of conservative commentators, as did the Southern slang "y'all." Former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum, for example, said he thought Biden was playing the "race card" in using the Southernism.

This incident showed just how much it matters how the media reports on the specific wording of a speech. Some outlets said Biden had used the less-charged phrase "you all." The Associated Press Stylebook, which most print news outlets follow, discourages quoting dialect precisely because it "implies substandard or illiterate usage," unless it's clearly relevant to the story.

Anna Marie Trester, co-director of the Georgetown University program on language and communication, has written on how using regional speech patterns can sometimes play to the benefit of politicians, by making them sound "down to earth."

George W. Bush, she points out, sometimes spoke in Spanish to appeal to Hispanic voters and to sound folksy. Bill Clinton also used Southern dialect effectively, as well as more formal English, "style shifting" to appeal to particular audiences, Trester says.

Obama likewise received good reviews last fall when he threw in a few colloquialisms during a speech in Australia.

But it doesn't always work, especially when the accent is viewed as inauthentic. Mitt Romney took heat last month, for instance, when he looked on as Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel used a fake Southern accent while defending the coal industry in a speech.

And Biden, of course, is no stranger to verbal gaffes. He got in trouble in New Hampshire in January when he used what sounded like an Indian accent in a speech decrying the outsourcing of call centers to foreign
countries.

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