During the opening night of the Republican National Convention, many speakers took to the podium and took advantage of a phrase spoken by President Obama that some are calling a grammatical error.

In a July 13 campaign appearance in Virginia, the president told an audience:

“If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

At least that's all the GOP would have you believe he said. The party has repeatedly used just those two sentences in campaign materials. In fact, the excerpt is part of a larger message:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

In a video released in late July, the Obama campaign says that "that" refers to the compound noun "roads and bridges."

But as the sentence is constructed (is that an em or an en dash?) mustn't "that" refer to "business"?

And who put the dash in there? Is it from an official transcript provided by Obama's team or was the speech put into print by the press or the Romney campaign?

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    I think it is a bit sloppy of Obama. He should have used those/them if he meant roads and bridges, because now readers will automatically read that as referring to a business, as you say. But then it makes no sense, so you have to read back and reinterpret. However, this was speech, not written text, so it can be forgiven. The gist of the speech is still perfectly clear. Aug 29, 2012 at 14:43
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    I think if the two sentences from "At least that's all the GOP…" to "…in campaign materials" were taken out of this question, it would help bring the focus to the important part for EL&U, "What is the antecedent of that and how is it affected by the em-dash?" Also, the last two questions posed are probably not on topic here (see this meta question and answer).
    – Cameron
    Aug 29, 2012 at 15:27
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    I think this is Too Localised or General Reference. As Cerberus says, it's speech, not written text. If OP had simply asked for a ruling here on the grammaticality of "I have my own business, but I didn't start that - I just took over my father's company", it would have been quickly closed as General Reference. Aug 29, 2012 at 17:10
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    I agree with @Cameron that you have worded this in a way that distracts from the question of English usage. E.g. "At least that's all the GOP would have you believe he said" is not neutrally worded and does not add to the question. Your first paragraph is similarly more about American politics than it is about English. I'll vote to close, but will reconsider if you can make this more applicable and less about the American politics of 2012. Aug 29, 2012 at 20:45
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    I reopened this question because while it certainly is a touchy subject, I don't think there is anything "localized" about the speeches of the President.
    – nohat
    Aug 31, 2012 at 15:08

3 Answers 3


English isn't a programming language. There's a certian level of ambiguity in just about any sentence or phrase. That means the listener has to be an active participant in the communications, by interpreting the meaning of what is being said.

It is fairly clear from the full context that he was probably intending to refer to the infrastructure of the country. However, some listeners would rather take it to mean something like, "The government built your business." That's their prerogative. It is also a valid interpretation of the sentence.

This is why a lot of politicians tend to talk in a boring, insanely complex (but linguistically safe) way.

As for the dash, presumably that was put in there to indicate a pause or stumble. The best way to decide how valid that is would be to watch the actual unabridged clip on YouTube and judge for yourself.

  • Thanks for the link, @Cameron ! I can't surf Youtube here, so I couldn't do it myself
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 29, 2012 at 15:22
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    +1 for "a lot of politicians tend to talk in a boring, insanely complex (but linguistically safe) way". Trying to figure out what a politician means is a dangerous road to go down.... Aug 29, 2012 at 20:50
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    I think "that" was meant to refer to the entire system his previous three sentences were talking about. Essentially, it's short for "all that stuff I was just talking about". It was a "grammatical error" in the sense that he left it grammatically ambiguous and that was an error because it permitted people to deliberately misunderstand it. Aug 29, 2012 at 22:02

There's no rule that I'm aware of that the antecedent of a pronoun has to be in that sentence, or has to be whatever occurs immediately before the pronoun. If "roads and bridges" is the antecedent, then it should have been "those" rather than "that." "[T]his unbelievable American system" is also a possible antecedent, and it does agree in number with "that", but it's even further away from the pronoun.

The em dash is included in the White House's official transcript (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/07/13/remarks-president-campaign-event-roanoke-virginia). To me it indicates a pause and a change of direction mid-sentence, similar to a previous sentence in the same speech: "They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own."

Interpreting either "roads and bridges" or "this unbelievable American system" as the antecedent makes more sense in the full context of the paragraph, and the paragraph before and after that.

  • +1 for the link to the official transcript, which the questioner should have included in their question as an indicator of doing research before asking. Aug 29, 2012 at 20:48
  • @MarkBeadles - Seeing as there was a stumble in the speech in the sentence in question, personally I think actual audio (or better yet, video) is less misleading than a transcript would be.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 4, 2012 at 14:59
  • @T.E.D., in what way is the transcript misleading? There's a dash indicating the pause or stumble. Sep 5, 2012 at 1:53
  • Our writing system, for all its power, isn't even a fraction as expressive as the spoken word. For example, there are nearly an infinte amount of possible inflections to put on a sentence, but English writing really has only three punctuation marks to represent them all. So if you are reading a speech rather than listening to it, you are losing information.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 5, 2012 at 13:39

I think this question is more about politics than about grammar.

I don't know where the transcript comes from. Whether the puncutation should be a dash, a comma, or a colon, I don't know, but I don't think it changes the meaning regardless.

There are two plausible interpretations of the sentence. 1. "That" was intended to referr to "a business". 2. "That" was intended to refer to "roads and bridges". If Mr Obama meant #2, then it's a grammar error, as "roads and bridges" is plural, so he should have said "those".

If we assume he said exactly what he meant -- is that "that" refers to "a business". His claim to be misquoted hinges on accepting that he made a grammar error.

The question is largely moot anyway. He either meant, "if you have a business, you didn't build that business, the government built it for you", or "if you have a business, you couldn't have built that business without these various things the government did for you and so you can't claim the credit". So no matter how you interpret "that", the general thought is the same: Any achievement a person may have is not really the result of his own efforts but was made possible by the government.

BTW since Obama claimed he was misquoted, the Republicans produced a TV ad with video of Obama making this statement that included the "roads and bridges" part, so viewers could judge for themselves.

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    I disagree about the political basis of the question. I find your political rambling off the point. Aug 29, 2012 at 15:06
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    IMHO this answer would be vastly improved just by changing the word "really" in the last sentence of the second to last paragraph with "entirely". As currently phrased, it still seems like a mischaractarization of the thought intended.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 29, 2012 at 15:14
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    Your third paragraph answers the question. You could expand on that to make it a good answer, IMO. The absolute terms you use in the 5th paragraph are only possible interpretation, not fact, as you seem to make them out to be. The last paragraph is irrelevant. Aug 29, 2012 at 15:17
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    Well, this is why I said the question is more political than linguistic. It's impossible to discuss it without getting into politics. Sorry, but if you say, "He said he was misquoted by the Republicans: just acknowledge that he didn't mean what they say he must have meant and move on", you are making just as much a political statement as if you said, "The Republicans took the plain meaning of his words, and if that isn't what he meant, than what did he mean?"
    – Jay
    Aug 29, 2012 at 20:33
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    @TED How have I mischaracterized it? The whole point of that speech seemed pretty clear to me to be saying that all business success is ultimately dependent on these vital government services. He went to great lengths to minimize the contribution of the business owner: "You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there." Etc.
    – Jay
    Aug 29, 2012 at 20:45

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