Sunday, December 15, 2019

Linguistic note: Impeached Forever

An enjoyable little grammar point on the opening of the impeachment articles which, we're told, is directly taken from the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton:
Resolved, That Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors1 and that the following articles of impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate...
Why is it "is impeached", rather than "be impeached", parallel to "be exhibited"?

In the first place, let's note what that "be" is; because it's not "be" in the most frequent sense of the infinitive complement with no subject or tense marking, most typically prefixed with "to" (as in "I want to be loved") but not always ("you can be anything you want"). This one, "that they be exhibited", is an English subjunctive, relic of a whole ancient verbal system that has mostly disappeared from English but is still used with "be" for referring to things that may or may not have happened, typically in an explicit or implied if-clause in the present
if this be madness, there is method in't
be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread
or that would have happened under different conditions in the imperfect

if I were king of the forest
Were I thy bride
then all the world beside
were not too wide
to hold my wealth of love
You can spot subjunctives in other verbs in texts more or less contemporary with Shakespeare as long as they're in third person
if thine eye offend thee...
or completely modern legal forms
I insist that he resign
In most European languages other than the sensible Scandinavian, it remains in all the verbs, sometimes to weird effect for a foreigner, as whenever German newspapers indirectly quote an assertion by a source, which gives a bizarrely tentative feel to the report.

Anyway, the "be" in a formal resolution
In Congress, July 19, 1776. Resolved. That it be earnestly recommended to the Convention of Pennsylvania to hasten with all possible expedition, the march of the associators into New Jersey, agreeable to a former request of Congress
is that subjunctive "be", to denote something that won't be true unless and until the instructions are carried out. The reason for the "is" in "resolved that [he] is impeached" is that no further instructions are needed. Trump is impeached by the vote. It's a reality that comes into being when the vote is passed.

In other words the resolution is what we call a performative utterance, or it might be wiser to say "perlocutionary act", a piece of language that accomplishes a social purpose like a wedding ceremony or name-giving. It's a real thing happening. The Articles of Impeachment will be exhibited across the way shortly to enable their processing by the Senate, but the impeachment itself has taken place; the president is impeached.

Which may or may not mean much. The verb "impeach" is from Old French, a doublet of modern French empêcher, which is to prevent or hinder someone from doing something; and the way it was used in older English, in the Middle Ages, was pretty decisively that: if you're impeached, you can pack up your stuff and go home. But the way Americans started using it in 1787 was to refer just to the first leg of a two-part process, impeaching-and-removing. Nevertheless, there is felt to be something final about the first leg, a suggestion that once you're impeached you will always remain impeached, an impeached person; as that vile old gambler Bill Bennett put it on 28 December 1998:
But conservative author William J. Bennett, also appearing on the NBC program, said: “Let’s get one thing clear. Bill Clinton has been impeached. . . . He is impeached, and he will be impeached forever. And in 50 years, when we read Bill Clinton’s name, we will not see his public opinion polls, but we will see next to it: ‘Impeached.’ ”
Bennett was precisely wrong about that—we literally do see the opinion polls first, and I think with reason, because the impeachment was unjust. In contrast, I think Speaker Pelosi is right:
"As we go forward prayerfully — this is sad for the country — that we do so strategically in a way that is ironclad. Should we go down that path…it would be in such an ironclad way, so focused…that if the Senate decides they have better things to do that day that the public will recognize that they have abandoned their oath of office," she said, adding that, as far as she's concerned, if they acquit, "he's impeached forever."
Because Democrats have been following those "ironclad" principles.

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