May 31, 2004

More Perfect

My grade 8 English teacher inisted on something perhaps even stupider than the obligatory omission of omissible that (that) Geoff Pullum discusses. She was of the view that one cannot combine more with an adjective like perfect that describes an absolute state. Her reasoning was that if it is correct to describe something as perfect, then the absolute has already been reached and no greater degree of perfection can be attained. This assumes a particular semantics for words like perfect, one that is plausible at first glance, but easily falsified. For instance, we can say that something is absolutely perfect, which wouldn't make sense if perfect already described the absolute state. I stand to be corrected by the semanticists, but it seems likely that when we say that something is perfect we mean that its degree of perfection falls within a distance d of absolute perfection, where the value of d is contextually determined. This allows us on the one hand to cut d down to 0 by specifying that something is absolutely perfect and on the other hand to talk about things approaching more and less closely to perfection.

I don't know if the demigods of usage have pronounced on this issue or not since I pay no attention to them, so I don't know if she got this silly idea from them, but she didn't cite authority as the basis for her views; she cited her incorrect semantic theory. Evidently she was not familiar with the Constitution of the United States, whose Preamble reads:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This is not only grammatical; it is elloquent. I can only endorse Linda Monk's proposal that the Preamble would be a far more suitable recitation for schoolchildren than the Pledge of Allegiance. Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance, it is not offensive to atheists, cannot be considered idolatrous, and expounds the values on which the United States was founded.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 31, 2004 05:46 PM