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Carpe linguam

Updated on January 22, 2020
teresapelka profile image

Linguist, specialized in American English and psycholinguistics; inventor of Language Mapping, a generative grammar; author and translator.

As we might care for style, we might care for our American English not to go against word sense and remain a living language.

The dot

I call it the dot. I do not have it for a full stop: there is so often so much to follow. I do not have it for a period, either. I believe in the periodic table, but not in periodic writing. The punctuation mark is mostly rounded or square, but were it triangular or hexagonal, the sense for it always is to give semantic contours to discourse. That is to say, the dot never is there to divide written or spoken thought.

One period could change the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, wrote ■→Danielle Allen for The Washington Post. The period after pursuit of happiness leads us to disconnect the opening premise about individual rights from the argument for the positive value of good government and the all-important conclusion about altering governments that fail us. Ms. Allen's vision for the Declaration would be more or less as here.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights...

Ms. Allen adds, For all that we talk about "original" founding documents, when it comes to the Declaration of Independence at least, we've had multiple versions since the earliest days of the revolution. Ms. Allen holds that a version is something to bring a different sense, a change in semantics.

For semantics and contours, the lines here are likely to look familiar and a bit different. They are a linguistic update. The word sense has remained the same since George Washington wrote the letter to the President of the Continental Congress. The language form is as today.

We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most advisable. (...) That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every State is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interests been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others.

The original has the semicolon here, but if we had the dot, the lines to follow would continue bringing the same sense: That it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.

There certainly was not any rule to forbid the dot in front of a sentence-initial That.


This is my picture for the Declaration: as in Dunlap's print for capital letters, and with punctuation as recognized by US National Archives.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these Rights...

The Congressional parchment, image contrast enhanced.
The Congressional parchment, image contrast enhanced. | Source

The Congressional parchment is not "original" in quotes. It is simply and plainly original. Document versions may be preliminary. After publication, typescripts and linguistic updates are not uncommon. Feel welcome to my ■→Internet Archive free resources.

Free resources
Free resources | Source

On language and comprehension, Ms. Allen wrote, Last summer, I stood behind a group of high school students at an exhibit about the Declaration. They began reading one of the versions of the text with the period. When they got to "pursuit of happiness", they lifted their hands in the air, shouted "yes", and were gone. They got the point about individual rights but not the people's responsibility to determine principles and organizational forms that achieve their shared safety and happiness.

There is an interesting example from the Constitution, Article II, Section 2. But the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers as they think proper, in the President alone, in courts of law, or in heads of departments. The manuscript has a comma before the phrase as they think proper.

... such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the...

The comma would refer back in the discourse for the officers, and go semantically forward for the President, courts of law, or heads of departments to be of choosing in appointing the officers. It would be natural to conclude that the matter is about inferior officers, yet going back in the written matter, we read:

... he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate shall appoint Ambassadors, other public ministers, and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for...

Really and naturally, nobody comprehends the text as with the comma. Punctuation may have been interpreted for "breathers", the places in written or spoken language to take in some air, or so it looks to have been the case with Article II: the Founders were not the calligraphers. Thus documented, breathing remains recommended, intonation to be the best syntactic marker.

A more perfect life

Not all leaks are trustworthy, and I do not know if the style book to have made quite some career over the Internet should be blamed on the CIA. Well, it anyway could not have been the CIA entire to attach "underbelly" to the so-called absolutes.

"The Preamble to the US Constitution is out of bounds grammatically when it speaks of a more perfect Union, and, as the common saying puts it, a woman cannot be somewhat pregnant," says the ■→"leaked style book".

The theory is that some adjectives are absolute in meaning, thus you do not gradate them: what is perfect cannot become more perfect. The theory yet belongs with fables of mythic lands, as there is no absolute word sense in this world. Things perfect to one person might be a hell of overabundance to another — to have absolutes really, we would have to revise on human lexicons, that potentially to entail matters of intimate importance as well — altogether, an ultimately imperfect idea.

Word meaning is much about consensus, and the Founders were about working an agreement. To achieve approval, you need a way with words, too. Living in America free of influence as described in the Declaration of Independence might have felt a kind of heaven; to practice animadversion would have been disqualifying. The Founders had a brilliant idea, to seek a more perfect Union, and it is really a pity the spellchecker does not get that.

Human “submissiveness”

The CNN report
The CNN report | Source

Inside a safe room of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Ambassador Chris Stevens took cover with two other foreign service officers, says the ■→CNN report on the assault.

For Smith, the rescue came too late. He had already succumbed to smoke inhalation by the time they arrived, the report continues.

The embassy got attacked by an Islamist group and two American diplomats died, ■→J. Christopher Stevens and ■→Sean Smith. Dramatic narrative is natural for the context, but word sense wouldn't play politics for the sake of style.

A tree might succumb to drought, a dam — under tidewater weight. Trees or dams are inanimate. For objects of thought that can move about, individual will in a hunted animal wouldn't receive focus any more than the trophy or dinner.

The bull succumbed in 40 yards and yielded to the 400 grain Woodleigh bullet... — ■→Patience, endurance, and plain hard work, by PH Jofie Lamprecht.

People are are animate as well as cognitive, and the verb "to succumb" implies volitional surrender. Privation or loss of postural control are not willful relinquishment.


American Heritage entry on sacrifice
American Heritage entry on sacrifice | Source

Most had never heard the name Al Qaeda. And yet, it’s because of their sacrifice that we’ve come together and dealt a crippling blow to the organization that brought evil to our shores, said ■→Barack Obama at Arlington about the victims of September 11.

They will endure in the hearts of our nation, because through their sacrifice, they helped us make the America we are today — an America that has emerged even stronger, he also remarked.

If we look up sacrifice with the ■→Heritage Dictionary, we get An offering for the sake of something else, forfeiture, something sold at a financial loss — nothing we might suppose to have been a conscious resolve on the part of the people who died the September.


Etan Patz before his disappearance in 1979
Etan Patz before his disappearance in 1979 | Source

It's a joint FBI-NYPD search for human remains, clothing, or personal effects, ■→reported ABC News on the case of ■→Etan Patz. New York police Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne was in SoHo for a search through Othneil Miller's premises. The boy disappeared in 1979. In 2017, Pedro Hernandez was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder.

The phrase personal effects has become quite usual, but let us think about the language and the land: As to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness, says the Declaration of Independence on the form of government that people naturally pursue to have.

As naturally, the word people refers to human individuals (only in the plural), whereas most movies will show personal effects for a paper bag or a box to contain a few pieces of property, or ■→paraphernalia (only in definition 2; definition 1 invokes "bride's property beyond her dowry").

Mind if we pick through your personal effects? The King of Scrounge, an American serviceman, has crammed his local apartment with enough salvaged paraphernalia to equip a battalion — provides an example ■→Merriam-Webster (Garry Trudeau, New York Times, 25 June 1991).

“Paraphernalia.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 16 January 2020.

“General body politic”

The ■→Collins dictionary has set down for "a member of the public to be "a member of the general population". Accordingly, the general population might be referenced as the body politic, committee, colloquium or symposium, and as an eisteddfod or festival for joyous and leisurely occasions.

Here, a member of the public saved Chris the sheep. ■→CNN reports: The gigantic sheep, named "Chris" by a member of the public who found it just outside Australia's capital, Canberra, could barely walk when it was found.

■→Ottawa Sun says the rescuer was an Australian champion shearer, Ian Elkins. Tammy Ven Dange, chief executive of the Canberra RSPCA, said about the sheep: "He's looking really good, he looks like a new man"...


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