December 3, 2003

"Unk unk's"

The "Plain English Campaign" gave Donald Rumsfeld its Foot in Mouth Award for this sentence:

'Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns � the ones we don't know we don't know.'
I don't think they covered themselves with glory in this case.

Just because a statement is complicated doesn't mean that it's bad English. Grasping the concept of "known-unknowns" and "unknown-unknowns" takes a bit of mental effort the first time you hear it....say, like maybe 3 seconds. But it's an important concept, and quite commonly used. I know that at Boeing (and probably elsewhwere) the "unknown-unknown" is a common engineering term-of-art. They are caled "unk unk's!"

And of course Rumsfeld was speaking off-the-cuff, and somewhat jokingly. If he were writing an article, he might have made the point clearer.

I wish there could be a moratorium on taking spoken words of public figures, ripping them out of context, and holding them to the standards appropriate for written statements. Politicians especially spend endless hours yakking to reporters and TV figures. Inevitably they say some muddled things. You would too. Yesterday Best of the Web was rolling on the floor because Howard Dean referred to the Soviet Union as if it was still in operation. That's STUPID. Howard Dean is perfectly aware of the demise of the Soviet Union, and probably meant something like "countries of the former Soviet Union."

* [UPDATE: actually, re-reading, it was not stupid to mention it, because it was peculiar. And they also had some other solid stuff about Dean nootziness. But I don't have time to look for a better example. So think of this as a "virtual" example. Or just say, "Weidner Lied!"]

It's stupid, and also a kind of lie. It's pushing the idea that Dean is an ignoramus, when he isn't. (Or if he is, they haven't made a real case for it.) I've seen the same thing with the "Bush Lied" crew. They take something said on TV by someone in the Administration, and say that it's a lie, when it's actually the sort of truncated or over-simplified talk that anyone would use for Television.

(Via Dean Esmay)

Posted by John Weidner at December 3, 2003 8:41 AM
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