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.

instead of:

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!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Arnold Z. (Palo Alto, CA)
Whole-word transpositions are reasonably common, almost always affecting two words with sentence accent in close proximity: "the walls on the clock" for "the clocks on the wall" (note preservation of inflection in situ) and "my tow got carred" for "my car got towed" (preservation of inflection in situ again, this time with a noun and verb transposed).

There sometimes might be personal reasons for producing one of the words first, but in the bulk of cases no such reason comes to hand, and we conclude that what's going on here is just interference between two choices in production.
Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Lee S. (Tucson, AZ)
A famous book review concluded "This book fills a much needed gap."
(But I do not have the source of the quote at hand."
Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 1:53 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
It was Moses Hadas, Lee. (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Moses_Hadas/)

Thanks for this great example of a wonderful malapropism!

(Reminds me of an old story about an elder's prayer in a public service, "O God, if the spark of revival is present in this church, I pray that thou might water that spark.")
Friday March 5th 2010, 2:31 PM
Comment by: The Poet (Kellogg, IA)
Of course President Obama could have been in on information we don't know.
The Army Corp of Engineers has been known to build a gap for a bridge if the Pork for a particular State needs to be increased.

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