[I have no idea how many posts I'll do in this series, or how often I'll write one, but I just couldn't resist creating it.]
I love movies and TV. I have a pretty healthy respect for language. I don't think those two should be mutually exclusive. From time to time, though, I notice weird grammatical quirks that I can't ignore.
"In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" is the two-hour opener of the second season of "The West Wing," and as I've said, it's a wonderful episode. There's a scene in the second half where Josh is waiting in the airport to fly home for his father's funeral when Jed Bartlet, still just a presidential contender, shows up to comfort him. It's a moving scene, but there's a moment that always jars me:
You want me to go with you?
Go with me?
Maybe you want some company on the plane. I could get a ticket and come with you.
Governor! California. You have to go the ballroom and give a victory speech in primetime and go to California.
I guess you're right.
[laughing] You guess I'm right? Listen to me, Governor, if you don't lose this election, it isn't going to be because you didn't try hard enough. But it was nice of you to ask. Thank you.
The emphasis is mine. Creator Aaron Sorkin is a gifted writer, but he's no stranger to grammatical slip-ups that masquerade as teachable moments. (Josh's lecture about the proper use of "an historical" instead of "a historical," which is actually kind of wrong, comes to mind.) I don't wanna get into double negatives and litotes; I just think we should untangle the sentence to see what it actually says.
First, let's just flip the negative in the first half and see what happens. The new sentence would be, "If you lose this election, it isn't going to be because you didn't try hard enough." The joking implication here would be that if Bartlet loses, he'll have to share some of the blame. No one will be able to accuse him of not trying hard to lose; this is what Josh would be saying if this were his dialogue. This meaning seems to fit with the tone of the scene and Josh's gentle admonition to Bartlet, who is on the verge of flaking out on his acceptance speech just to see Josh off at the airport. This new sentence would have Josh jokingly telling Bartlet that Bartlet's doing a solid job at throwing the game, and that if he loses the election, well, it won't be because he didn't try, meaning it will
partially be because he did
But that's not what Sorkin wrote. He wrote, "If you don't
lose this election, it isn't going to be because you didn't try hard enough." (Again, emphasis mine.) That reverses the meaning of the first half of the sentence, making it in effect: "If you win this election, it isn't going to be because you didn't try hard enough." Which would make sense from an electoral perspective, I guess — if Bartlet wins, it will indeed be in part because of the effort he put forth — but it's not at all the meaning Josh and Sorkin need. Josh is kindly telling the president to get it together, that his behavior runs the risk of losing the election. Bartlet's appearance at the airport has Josh half-worried that Bartlet will blow the acceptance speech and the nomination; it wouldn't make sense for him to weirdly commend Bartlet on his work so far in a convoluted way.
The sentence, as written and spoken, is wrong. For it to make grammatical sense, and for it to click with the tone of the episode and scene, it should be: "If you lose this election, it isn't going to be because you didn't try hard enough." Oh well.