During President Obama's health care summit last week, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor suffered a bit of a misspeak, saying: "We have a very difficult bridge to gap here." Whoops! It's the gap that needs bridging, of course, not vice versa.
Victor Steinbok, an eagle-eyed contributor to the American Dialect Society mailing list, spotted Cantor's goof right away and wondered how it would appear in the transcript. Sure enough, the Washington Post captured Cantor's words: "We, again, have a very difficult bridge to gap here, because I know that this is something that we don't want to look at." (The C-SPAN video of the event confirms this is what he said.) Cantor must have realized his error, because he very quickly posted a corrected version on his Twitter feed: "We have a very difficult gap to bridge here."
The gaffe might have pleased Cantor's opponents (one forum poster called it a "Freudian slip," figuring he must be "invested in the gap, not the bridge") — but it's actually an understandable error to make. The expression usually has bridge before gap, as in "to bridge a gap." (An earlier version in English is "to stop a gap," which gave rise to the word stopgap, meaning "something contrived to meet an urgent need or emergency.") So when Cantor spoke, he might have been thinking:
1. It is difficult (for us) to bridge the gap.
and ended up with:
2a. We have a difficult bridge to gap.
2b. We have a difficult gap to bridge.
Some grammatical nitty-gritty: The word it in Sentence 1 is what's known as "anticipatory it," anticipating the infinitive "to bridge the gap" later in the sentence. It could be removed, with the infinitive serving as the sentence's subject: "To bridge the gap is difficult." Sentences 2a and 2b, meanwhile, are examples of "transferred epithets" or hypallage: the adjective difficult, instead of being used as a predicate to describe the act of bridging a gap, has been transferred to modify the noun gap — or, in the erroneous version, bridge. Here's another example of hypallage with difficult correctly modifying the noun bridge:
3. We have a difficult bridge to cross.
Since Sentence 3 is so close to Sentence 2a (with gap standing in for cross), this expression might have also contributed to Cantor's slip-up, momentarily confusing his word choice. English is certainly rich in bridge idioms and sayings, from "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it" to "Don't burn your bridges." (These two are sometimes playfully combined: "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it.") So with all that bridge-crossing and bridge-burning, there are plenty of opportunities to get mentally waylaid while trying to describe political bridge-gapping, uh, gap-bridging.
Feel free to leave a comment below — but, as always, let's try to be civil and bridge those ideological gaps!