In the famous leaked video, Mitt Romney says

My job is not to worry about those people

An equivalent sentence probably is

It is not my job to worry about those people

Some media in my home country have translated it to something roughly like

My job is: not to worry about those people

The difference is that the not can be assigned to "my job is" or either to "to worry about those people. I actually do not know how this difference can be demonstrated by two proper English sentences, so I hope you get the idea.

Question: Can these different shades of meanings be rendered in English just by word order or grammatical particles? Is there any ambiguity in Mitt Romney's statement?

  • 1
    When arranging words in negative or other constructions, often a compromise has to be reached between total unambiguousness and sounding ridiculous. 'My job is not to worry about these people' admittedly sounds like Romney is claiming that that is the sum total of what his job entails (as the media translation wrongly interprets it), but it is understood to mean the same as your own fine suggestion. It sounds a little more formal, less defensive, the way Romney puts it. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 '13 at 8:18
  • That is pragmatics domain. My job is not = It is not my job per context; = It is my job(|) not (to) is counter pragmatic. Grammar's job is not to rule usage and construction (how something is construed). Romney said what he meant; the media punned as it is its job. – Kris Apr 11 '13 at 8:18
  • And politicians are by definition pragmatists. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 '13 at 8:21
  • Romney put it badly. Your second quote is correct and much less ambiguous, Martin – ElendilTheTall Apr 11 '13 at 8:21
  • Your second sentence contains truth, Elendil, but, as I say above, Romney doesn't sound as dismissive by using the variant he chooses. It depends on how you define 'put it badly'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 '13 at 8:25

Yes, the two meanings can be rendered in English just by using different word order.

  1. It is not my job to worry about those people.
  2. It is my job to not worry about those people.

However, the second one is, of course, a very unlikely interpretation of Romney's original quote. Nobody's job, not even that of a politician, consists entirely of not worrying about just one thing and doing nothing else at all. (For starters, for every human in every profession there are always several things they don't worry about.)

  • The second one is how I read it. Job as "task" not "An economic role for which a person is paid": en.wiktionary.org/wiki/job#Noun. – donothingsuccessfully Apr 11 '13 at 19:03
  • ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’ / Was there a man dismay’d? / Not tho’ the soldier knew / Some one had blunder’d: / Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do & die, / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred. – tchrist Apr 11 '13 at 19:08

The statement:

My job is not to worry about those people


I have an active responsibility to be indifferent to these people


It is not my job to worry about those people


I have no responsibility to have sympathy for these people

The translation is correct.

  • 3
    Not true. The sentence is technically ambiguous as given but would ordinarily be parsed as "my job is not (x)" instead of "my job is (not x)". – Hellion Apr 11 '13 at 20:25

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