One Step (Backwards) for the Parts of Speech

I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the night, a couple of weeks ago, when Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, was about to force a brief government shutdown through a filibuster and other delaying tactics. Maddow showed video of him speaking on the Senate floor about one of his favorite themes, government waste, and I briefly glimpsed one of his visual aids that, if I read it correctly, was deeply strange. I searched the Internet for the poster, and it turned out I had read it correctly.


The deeply strange thing, needless to say, is that the word a is not a preposition but an article. Talk about waste; Paul spent I don’t know how much government money on a slick poster and couldn’t even be bothered to get his parts of speech right.

That made me wonder if there was anything else Paul got wrong in his attack on this study, which he initially broached in a 2016 press release. Spoiler alert: The answer is “yes.”

Backing up a bit, when Neil Armstrong arrived on the moon in July 1969, the first words he said seemed to be, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This doesn’t really make sense, since “man” and “mankind” are pretty much the same thing. Armstrong subsequently contended that he had actually said, ” … step for a man … ” (emphasis added), which does make sense, and makes it a good quote.

You can judge for yourself by listening to this recording.

Over the years, there have been various attempts to determine whether he said “a” or not. In 2006, an Australian computer programmer ran the recording through audio software and concluded that Armstrong had voiced the article but static blotted it out. Three years later, two other researchers, using supposedly higher-quality recordings, came to the opposite conclusion. Armstrong, who died in 2011, himself would adopt the position that while he intended to say a, he wasn’t completely sure whether he had done so and preferred that the word be rendered in parentheses. That seems reasonable.

The study ridiculed by Rand Paul was published in September 2016; you can read it here. The lead author was Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon. Paul’s poster (and his press release) misrepresented the purpose of the study, which it described as an attempt “to figure out whether Neil Armstrong used the preposition ‘a.'” Rather, the authors examine, through an experimental study, how the confusion over Armstrong’s quote may relate to broader issues regarding how we hear what others say. As Dr. Baese-Berk wrote to me in an e-mail,  “We were less interested in whether Armstrong used the article and more interested in whether this instance could illustrate the very issues of timing and speech reduction that we were interested.”

Furthermore, the poster is deeply disingenuous regarding funding. Take a look at it. How much do you think the National Science Foundation spent on Dr. Baese-Berk’s Neil Armstrong study–$700,000, right? Wrong. In fact, the grant was spread out over more than forty complementary studies. Paul’s press release is equally deceptive and misleading on this point.

Having read the Armstrong  study, I acknowledge that its findings do not amount to a cure for cancer. However, to state what should be obvious, that isn’t the way science works. It advances our understanding through fits and starts. The starts could not occur without the fits.

Nor am I saying that all academic research, government-funded or not, is worthwhile. Some of it amounts to self-perpetuating boondoggling, with little hope of eventually yielding real enlightenment or utility, and deserves to be critiqued.

But not through Rand Paul’s two-bit demagoguing.