Elizabeth Warren and the Down-to-Earth Trap

Even when she taps into the colloquial vernacular that’s characteristic of her Oklahoma roots, the Democratic presidential candidate risks appearing inauthentic.

Warren campaigning for Senate at a bar in Boston in 2012 (Steven Senne / AP)

“Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer.” With those simple words, Elizabeth Warren unleashed a wave of social-media mockery for what her critics see as a ham-handed attempt to convey down-home authenticity. Warren’s comment was made during an Instagram livestream broadcast from her family kitchen on New Year’s Eve, soon after announcing her candidacy to run for president in the 2020 Democratic primary—the first major candidate to do so.

The image of “the multi-million-dollar Cambridge law professor poppin’ a brewski” (in the words of one conservative columnist from the Boston Herald) was incongruous enough for many observers, but Warren’s phrasing just before fetching a beer from her refrigerator seemed to drive home the awkwardness of the moment.

The senator was using what syntacticians call a “personal dative,” a nonstandard use of a pronoun (“me”) immediately after a verb (“gonna get”) that refers back to a subject (“I”). In standard English, a reflexive pronoun would be expected in that position, as in “I bought myself a car” rather than the nonstandard “I bought me a car.” This grammatical feature is most associated with southern and Appalachian dialects of English, also extending into the South Midlands region—including Oklahoma City, where Warren grew up. The construction has a long history in American usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has examples all the way back to an 1821 diary entry by William Sewall, a Maine transplant in Maryland: “Purchased me some linens.”

Warren could have said, “I’m gonna get myself a beer,” or she could have simply left out the pronoun and said, “I’m gonna get a beer.” DARE notes that the pronoun in such cases is often redundant and is used “to emphasize that the speaker’s advantage (or disadvantage), well-being, pleasure, or the like is ultimately concerned.” That certainly fits the context of Warren’s desire for a cold beer after a long, eventful day.

So if “I’m gonna get me a beer” is typical of the speech of those who grew up where Warren did, and it was appropriate for the casual moment, why has she been so mocked for saying it? One immediate answer is that Warren is being criticized for everything at the moment, especially anything related to her purported lack of “likability” (criticisms that, as Peter Beinart has noted, are heavily gendered).

The Yale linguist Laurence R. Horn, who has studied the personal dative and its appearances in politics and popular culture, discerns in the Warren brouhaha an echo of previous derision surrounding a Democratic presidential candidate. In 2004, just a couple of weeks before the general election, John Kerry went into an Ohio grocery store and inquired of the owner, “Can I get me a hunting license here?” A commentary in the conservative Washington Times noted at the time, “Even the phraseology sounded staged. Mr. Kerry ordinarily doesn’t talk this way, and his language sounded fake and patronizing—as if he was pretending to talk like someone from rural Ohio.” Kerry, unlike Warren, really does come from a patrician New England background, so “get me a hunting license” did seem like he was trying too hard to take on the speech patterns of the Ohioans whose votes he was courting.

But as Horn observes, the popular perception of the hunting-license moment made it seem even clumsier than it actually was. Kerry’s quote was typically given as “Can I get me a huntin’ license?”—even though audio reveals that there was no g-dropping involved. (G-dropping— the substitution of the “ng” sound with the “n” sound—is often taken on by candidates on the campaign trail, with varying degrees of success. In 2008, Sarah Palin used the feature to great effect as John McCain’s running mate, while Hillary Clinton was seen as an inauthentic g-dropper.)

Horn explored the Kerry episode in a 2008 paper that also offers a range of other examples of the personal dative entering pop culture, including Dan Fogelberg’s 1980 hit song “Same Old Lang Syne,” which includes the line “She said she’d married her an architect.” Horn quotes a gripe about Fogelberg’s song in a 2005 blog comment. The commenter wondered, “Is Fogelberg, who seems capable of standard usage, the kind of guy who would say, ‘Dag nabbit, she up ’n’ married her an architect?’” That led Horn to dub the trap that Kerry and Warren fell into “the dagnabbit effect.”

Even if we acknowledge that Warren came by her personal dative authentically given her Oklahoma roots (roots that she emphasized in her campaign launch video), she nonetheless will continue to battle accusations that she is “inauthentic in everything she does,” as Greg Gutfeld put it on Fox News. And for those on the right especially, the beer comment quickly put her in the same spurious camp as Kerry—just another elitist politician affecting what one Breitbart News writer called on Twitter “fake folksy vernacular.”

It’s a double bind, of course—if Warren harks back to her own upbringing in her language use, she gets called inauthentic, but if she purges her speech of any nonstandard idioms, she’d be seen as lacking a populist touch. Either way, it will be a tough rhetorical needle for Warren to thread if she wants to get her the Democratic nomination, dagnabbit.