September 21, 2005

You da man

And we the people. It's copula deletion (not). Apparently that's the idea behind this BC strip:

I totally didn't get it, so I asked some of my colleagues for help. Arnold Zwicky, who confesses that his college nickname was "Zot" (the sound of the BC anteater eating an ant), suggested the copula-deletion theory.

Geoff Pullum offered another hypothesis... [&mdash Let me interrupt. Geoff Pullum here. What I said was actually completely nuts and shouldn't have even been mentioned; I should never send emails or operate heavy machinery while under the influence of whatever I was under the influence of. But I am much recovered now, and I do actually have a new hypothesis. If you look in Strunk and Whites vile little assemblage of stupid advice about usage in The Elements of Style, you will find (this is how stupid they are) that the word people is actually banned. They say the plural of person should always be persons. So that could be it. The grammar police are going to insist it should have been "We the persons." Could that be it?

Anyway, returning now to what Mark has posted, what I actually said to Mark in the email was meant to be something tongue in cheek about how perhaps the people in the cartoon thought the original had been us the people and it had been changed to we the people by the grammar police. And I pretended to be shocked that Mark did not know about "the well known rule that we must ALWAYS replace us in all contexts." Then I mockingly and possibly drunkenly added the following. —GKP]

What's the matter, don't you know how to use our great and beautiful language with full correctness? Are you one of the vulgar persons who say "Where's the bus station at?" (correct version: "At where is the bus station?")?

I guess that's the correct version in Geoff's native England, and also over at the New Yorker's IT department. Elsewhere here in his adopted U.S. of A., the correct version would be "where's the bus station at, epithet?" One version of this joke can be found here, [and another one was just posted here, as Matthew Hutson pointed out by email], but there are many other epithets available for use in this context.

Seriously, it might well be true that Johnny Hart called out the grammar police for "we the people" because of we/us anxiety. The other day, I asked a class for (grammatical) reactions to the much-discussed sentence

Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

and one of the suggested emendations was to replace that with which. When people learn that some strange and unnatural principle is supposed to govern the choice between two forms -- that/which, me/I, we/us, whatever -- they sometimes conclude that whichever of these word pairs they're inclined to use in a given case, the "correct" choice is probably the other one. (More on which v. that here and here.)

[Another interpolated note, this time by Mark Liberman. On reflection, I'm convinced that Geoff is right: the alleged infraction is "people". This concocted rule is so far out of line with the norms of contemporary usage that its relevance to this case never even occurred to me. And not even Strunk would prefer "We the persons" in this case, where the joke is a hypercorrect application of one of Strunk's little peeves.

In fact, two different Strunkish peeves involve the word people, though neither one applies to this case. His first complaint was that "The people is a political term, not to be confused with the public. From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage". His other, more unreasonable notion was that "The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of "six people" five went away, how many "people" would be left?" A perfectly well-formed answer to this question is "One". Or perhaps better, "One, epithet." To quote another post by Geoff Pullum, "Don't put up with usage abuse." ]

Meanwhile, I searched the web for a good illustration of Zot in action, and in the process of failing to find any, I learned that a substantial percentage of what the web knows about anteaters appears to consist of bad puns. From the Online Anteater:

An anteater walks into a bar and says that he'd like a drink. "Okay," says the bartender. "How about a beer?" "Noooooooooo," replies the anteater. "Then how about a gin and tonic?" "Noooooooooo." "A martini?" "Noooooooooo." Finally, the bartender gets fed up and says, "Hey, listen buddy, if you don't mind me asking - why the long no's?"

And apparently the Hilo zoo's anteater, Spike, is betrothed to a young lady named Penny Ant-E.

I'll spare you the one whose punchline is "an armadildo".

[Update: Joe Salmons wrote

I was so baffled by the 'we the people' thing that I took an overhead of the strip to class this morning and invited solutions before the hour started. One student quickly suggested that it might be about commas -- 'we, the people of the United States, ...'. In light of all the recent Eats Shoots and Leaves stuff, that strikes me as really plausible -- although it would be pretty obscure for this kind of cartoon. (As another student quipped, 'I think that guy's running out of ideas.')

Yes, I guess it could be commas as well. My money is still on people, but in a way this whole thing is a kind of parable of the unnatural and thus widely misunderstood nature of the "rules" under discussion. ]

[Update #2: David Kidd writes:

I can't find an electronic copy, but there's an old Far Side cartoon that has founding-fathers-types gathered around one of their number, who sits at a desk with an empty piece of paper and a quill pen held to his lips in consideration, and the caption reads: "So then: should that be 'we the people' or 'us the people'?"


[Update #3: Lane Greene writes:

My $.02 -- I can only imagine that a cartoonist who's not a voracious consumer of style books was making fun of copula deletion, "we [are] the people", as your first instinct suggested. The alternatives are all implausible in the extreme to the lay person like me and the average "BC" reader.

"Us the people" sounds bizarre to everyone, especially given that most every American knows the fixed phrase from the Constitution "we the people" and would assume Madison got it right, even if unsure about their own judgment.

"We the public" is a Strunk-only style-not-grammar rule that Johnny Hart seems highly unlikely to know, much less to follow slavishly or expect every reader to know.

"We the persons" doesn't even conform to Strunk's second rule, since it doesn't involve a number ("six persons").

"We, the people" is at least remotely plausible. I doubt Johnny Hart has read "Eats, Shoots and Pontificates Annoyingly", but some English teacher might have drilled some rule along these lines his head. We once had an internal Economist tiff between two editors, one of whom insisted that you must say "Joe Bloggs, of Oxford University, says" and one of whom (the boss, who won by pay grade) said it's OK to say "Joe Bloggs of Oxford University says".

But this last one still seems unlikely since the entire utterance on which the speakers are judged is "We the people". It seems like we are to judge this as a malformed sentence, not a badly punctuated noun phrase.

Far more likely, in a strip that appears in every mainstream broadsheet in the country, is that Hart is having a 10-years-too-late jab at copula-deletion in "Ebonics". Nothing else would make sense for Hart the cartoonist, much less his hugely mainstream audience.

OK, now I'm just as confused as I was when I started, except that instead of having no idea at all what Hart was getting at, I have four candidates: copula deletion, we/us, punctuation, and people/persons. Technically, I guess the hypothesis space is the power set of these alternatives, since the Grammar Police could get on your case for more than one reason. I'd write to Hart and ask him -- but maybe this is one of those things that it's better not to know.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 21, 2005 06:10 AM