Let’s ignore its repellant jingoism and just sheer ignorance for a moment and instead focus on the grammar of this recent Sarah Palin quote:
Truly, it is a war on our religious liberties and that violation of conscience that he would mandate that is un-American because it violates our First Amendment in our Constitution.
Pretty incomprehensible, right?
Now, I don’t like Palin, but I don’t think CNS News is doing her any favors by punctuating the sentence this way. (Odd, considering CNS is a pretty conservative site.) Or rather, not punctuating it at all. I’ve not seen video of her saying this, but if I had to guess, she’s saying something like this:
Truly, it is a war on our religious liberties, and that violation of conscience that he would mandate—that is un-American because it violates our First Amendment in our Constitution.
I haven’t changed a single word, just added punctuation. The sentence is still not great—her use of “our” is pretty puzzling, among other, larger problems—but it’s at least somewhat comprehensible.
We have three different uses of that here: the first “that” is an adjective; the second introduces a restrictive clause; the final “that,” which I’ve rendered in italics, is clearly supposed to be a pronoun whose referent is the clunky phrase “that violation of conscience that he would mandate.” Her initial subject is so long that she feels the need to reemphasize, so she sums it all up with “that.” The traditional way of rendering this in English is to use a dash, though this habit of folding a long subject into “that” occurs more often in speech than in writing.
The original punctuation, however, gives us no clues on how to read it, and we default to assuming that the final “that” is introducing a restrictive clause, as the “that” before it does. This is what we’re conditioned to do when we see the word in the middle of a clause without punctuation around it: it’s not in front of a noun, so it can’t be an adjective, and there’s no punctuation, so it’s not this summing-up pronoun. Or so our brain thinks, anyway, when a writer doesn’t bother to punctuate properly. Palin is actually much more comprehensible (here, at least) than the writer makes her.
I might be wrong though. It certainly does work the way I’ve punctuated it, but who knows if that’s what she meant. Can anyone come up with another plausible read? This is almost like some grammatical challenge—extract some sort of sense from this pile of words. One other reading, for example, is to read all the “that”s as restrictive clauses, so that the war has a compound object: it is a war on both “our religious liberties” and “that violation of conscience…” (What follows, then, describes the violation; it would mandate and it is un-American.) Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to make sense, because it can’t be a war on both religious liberties and violation of conscience, because those two things are opposites. Which is why I think that “violation of conscience that he would mandate” has to be the subject of the second half of this compound sentence…
Must shower now: feel dirty for defending the grammar of a Sarah Palin sentence.