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After a deadly random shooting at Fort Hood the other day, President Obama was quoted as saying as follows:

In Chicago, President Obama said that White House and Pentagon officials were following the events closely. “We are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” the president said. “We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.”

What does he exactly mean by saying "we're heartbroken something like this might have happened again" instead of "We're heartbroken something like this happened again?"

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4 Answers 4

Here is my interpretation:

The pronoun this in the sentence actually refers to another shooting took place in 2009 at the same facility that resulted in 13 deaths by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a military psychiatrist and a Muslim. It was an act of terrorism. One of his motivations was to kill as many soldiers as he could to wage jihad on American military personnel.

The verb might in the sentence expresses the possibility that the Fort Hood incident is similar to the one took place in 2009. But so far nobody is sure if the Fort Hood incident is actually terrorism-related.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, told reporters that the soldier's motive remained unclear, but that the shooting did not appear to be related to terrorism.

(It is highly likely that it had nothing to do with terrorism at all as there are strong evidence that Ivan A. Lopez had a medical history that indicates an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition.)

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And he is not a Muslim so the chances of labeling him as a terrorist are slim. –  Noah Apr 4 at 6:42
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Hmmm...you might be right. Good catch, this makes the most sense. There is no question of what happened, and he did not intend the subjunctive use, but rather was implying the underlying cause of this wasn't clear and might be related to terrorism. –  Mike Apr 4 at 23:19
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Rather than

We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.”

I think he wants to say

We’re heartbroken something like this has happened again.”

but needs to say

We’re heartbroken something like what this might be might have happened again.”

but can't say the first as it would be stating on the record that "this" is in fact "something like what this might be", and can't say the second because it's just too wishy-washy. So he gets caught between the desire to be emotional and direct, and the caution required of a government official discussing possibly criminal events.

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I agree with the person who says that it was a poorly constructed sentence.

I believe Obama meant to say: 'We're heartbroken that something like this has happened again'. He, justifiably, went for the subjunctive but got it wrong. What he should have said was:

'We're heartbroken that something like this should have happened again'.

Edit After reading what others have written I am less sure of my earlier expressed opinion on this.

One thing is certain and that is that Obama's sentence is grammatically incorrect. But I think there are two possibilities as to what he meant to say:

Either a) he was trying to use the subjunctive and got it wrong (see my above comments); or b) he was saying he was heartbroken that something like the previous atrocity 'might' have occurred again. But if that was the case surely he should have said 'We are heartbroken that it might be a case of another terrorist atrocity'. But he really ought to be 'heartbroken' whatever the cause, since someone has died. All in all it is a garbled statement, but perhaps understandable in the circumstances.

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I think he avoided "should have happened" because it's so commonly interpreted as "ought to". (Imagine the fun that Breitbart.com would have had with THAT sentence!) The subjunctive would have been the grammatically correct way to phrase this - but I suspect he realized halfway through what a minefield he was about to step into, and failed to make a clean recovery. –  MT_Head Apr 4 at 8:07
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Nope. You're changing the meaning of the sentence here. –  Preston Fitzgerald Apr 4 at 8:07
    
The 'might' or 'should' can have a purely pragmatic, softening role, as 'might' or 'could' in 'Might/Could I ask that you leave your room by 11 am.' (polite request rather than question, hence no question mark; near paraphrase 'Please leave your room by 11 am). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 at 8:20
    
Also, here is an article referring to another sad episode (the mass shootings in Norway): 'Much of the confusion of Friday’s tragedy came from the utter disbelief that something like this might have happened here.' where the bolded (by me) string is synonymous with could possibly have happened. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 at 8:50
    
@EdwinAshworth Interesting. That form of words is starting to ring bells with me. Perhaps it is a form of the subjunctive. –  WS2 Apr 5 at 22:12
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A case of very clumsy, highly questionable, usage:

He was obviously referring to the previous incident at Ft. Hood. But since he did not previously mention that previous incident,this is not appropriate. this would only be appropriate if previously he had said "I know that not long ago, there was a similar incident here at Ft. Hood... We’re heartbroken something like this..."

Still, that would be far better usage than this in that case, because the reference was to something in the relatively distant past. this refers to something existing/occurring in the present.

It's nothing to get excited about. He was suddenly thrust into a difficult and tragic situation, and so he was groping for words and referring to what was in his mind, although it had no real context in terms of the sentence itself. A malapropism is understandable under the circumstances.

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I can think of two correct interpretations, given no context, for “We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.” (1) We sadly suspect that there has since been a repeat of this terrible incident. (2) We sadly admit that we didn't take sufficient steps to prevent a further occurrence. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 at 7:29
    
The context is available. Since he did not previously mention the other incident,this is not appropriate. this would only be appropriate if previously he had said "I know that not long ago, there was a similar incident here at Ft. Hood... “We’re heartbroken something like this..." Still, that would be far better usage than this, because the reference was to something in the relatively distant past. I don't hold it against him - it was a sudden and difficult situation and he was groping for words. See edit. –  Vector Apr 4 at 9:13
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I wouldn't use his phraseology myself here, but 'very poorly constructed sentence' per se it's not. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 at 17:00
    
I changed it to a question of usage. –  Vector Apr 4 at 17:20
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I've withdrawn my downvote as your amendment is more acceptable. 'He didn't mean anything except a very poorly constructed sentence.' was worth more than a downvote – it's worse than Obama's sentence, and critical without any analysis. Even with the known context, there is the uncommon sense of 'might' in place of the more usual 'should' here: “We’re heartbroken something like this should have happened again.” “We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.” The modal is omissible; it is present only in a pragmatic (softening) role here (cf Might/Could I request that ...). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 at 18:50
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