The grammar of "Better Together"

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The official name of the organization campaigning for a No vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is "Better Together." That phrase was originally the campaign's main slogan. Much has been written in recent days about the campaign's evident signs of panic, but no one has commented on the stupidity of "Better Together" as a slogan. (It was actually ditched by the campaign in June, and replaced by an even more pathetic slogan: "No Thanks.")

Better together is an adjective phrase. Used on its own, without any logical subject or other accompanying noun phrases, it is apparently supposed to affirm that something will go better in some way for someone than something else if something is together with something else, but it doesn't specify any of these someones or somethings. Yet the cui bono issue (who benefits) is absolutely crucial to the debate. The ineptness of the sloganeering is almost unbelievable.

Notice the following five points of syntax and semantics.

  1. Better, the head of the phrase, is a comparative adjective. There is thus an implicit object of comparison: a thing that's better has to be better than something else.

  2. The adverb modifier together only makes sense applied to a group of at least two entities. That's why They are better together is grammatically coherent (they is plural) but *He is better together is not (he is singular).

  3. Some verb has to be understood to make a complete predication out of a predicative adjective phrase like better together: we are talking about something being better, becoming better, remaining better, working out better, functioning better, or something of the sort.

  4. Together as an adjunct modifying better really only makes sense in the presence of an implicit conditional: something will be better than some alternative if some group G stays together or works together or whatever.

  5. There is also an implicit benefactive complement, answering the question: better for whom? They are better together has roughly the same entailments as It is better if they are together, and both entail that there is some unspecified party who benefits, or from whose perspective things improve (though the beneficiary may be some very vague entity like the general good or the rational observer).

The No campaign's ridiculous slogan leaves us guessing at all five of these!

Typical uses of better modified by together in a sentence will involve sentences like those in [1].

[1] a. It will be better for Cedric if Arthur and Beryl remain together rather than getting a divorce.
  b. Cedric will do better if Arthur and Beryl remain together than he will if they divorce.

The logical forms are essentially the same: each sentence says that the prospect of A and B remaining together is better for C than some alternative D is. Both [1a] and [1b] express a ternary relation between (i) a group G of at least two (here, {AB} = Arthur and Beryl) who get together or remain together, (ii) an alternative involving G not being or remaining together, and (iii) a beneficiary C from whose perspective some good results from G being or remaining or working together.

As a further illustration, consider the sole occurrence of better together in the Wall Street Journal corpus (1988, file w8_035, line 8931):

[2]   Consider four reasons why Mr. Reagan's Fed and a Dukakis administration might work better together than conventional wisdom suggests.

Here G = {A, B} where A is President Reagan's Federal Reserve System and B is the administration of a putative future President Dukakis; the alternative D is what conventional wisdom suggests about the outcome; the verb of the predication is work; and the beneficiary C (left entirely unspecified) is something like the general good of the United States.

Now, who or what are the relevant parties under the Better Together campaign's view of the Scottish independence situation? The slogan seems to shroud this in mystery, almost wilfully. Better for whom? The rest of the UK is worried about what will be better for them, but Scots are concerned with what will be better for Scotland.

The UK will certainly be better off if Scotland votes to stay within the sovereign state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK's central government, based in Westminster (a district of central London), has many reasons for wanting Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. Scotland is a real plus.

  • The steady supply of oil from Scottish waters in the North Sea lends stability to the UK's currency, the pound sterling.
  • The Firth of Clyde provides a berth for the staggeringly expensive Trident nuclear submarines and their nuclear-tipped missiles.
  • Income tax paid by Scots can be spent outside Scotland at the will of the Westminster government (Scotland's small minority of voters, just 8 percent, could never prevail against the votes of England's Members of Parliament). And Scotland's ability to generate revenue should not be underestimated. A single video game product, Grand Theft Auto V, produced by Rockstar North in Edinburgh, earned one billion US dollars in its first three days after release. Tourists, a quarter of them American, contribute about $6.5 billion a year to Scotland's economy. Scotch whisky exports make about $7 billion per year.
  • More generally, the UK gets many benefits from sharing Scotland's stellar natural, recreational, educational, financial, and human resources (its superb universities provide just one example).

What's not to like!

But the crucial question for Scotland is not what the interests of England or Wales or Northern Ireland might be.

Nor is it whether Scotland could work as an independent country. Scotland, with a population 16 times as large as that of Iceland, has roughly the same number of inhabitants as countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway, and a GDP roughly comparable to those. No one has ever suggested that countries such as these are incapable of being independent nation states. They are positively exemplary. (Denmark and Finland not only rank as two of the best and most prosperous countries in which to live, they are two of the least corrupt, regularly jostling for top place in both the Corruption Perceptions Index and the Global Corruption Barometer.)

No, the crucial question is whether being locked in a union with three other nations under a government that is England-dominated and London-centered, is truly better for Scotland.

The inept slogan of the No campaign seems evasive to the point of mendaciousness in the way it sidesteps that point.

Yes, it would be better for the rest of the UK if Scotland remained in a united sovereign state with them. The arrangement could perhaps have been a federal one, in which Scotland controlled all of its own governance and taxation but participated voluntarily in a federation of nations mainly relevant for defense. That could have been one of the choices on the ballot on September 18, and it would have won by a landslide; but UK prime minister David Cameron made the foolish decision not to allow it. He insisted that the people of Scotland had to vote on two unknown futures: they had to choose between what would happen if they became an independent country versus what would happen if they elected to remain in the UK.

Cameron has lost his gamble. The people of Scotland are beginning to realize that the main beneficiaries from a No vote would be the Conservative-led central government in London and the rich elite of south-east England. They are seeing the floundering No campaign as offering very little more than fear-mongering: there might be currency problems, border control issues, European Union membership negotiations… The future, they cry, would be uncertain!

But the future is always uncertain: that's its primary characteristic. Cameron himself, in another ill-judged decision, has pledged to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether the UK as a whole should take the extraordinarily perilous step of withdrawing from the EU. Scots are in favor of remaining in the EU; a majority of the English would probably vote against.

Scots are afraid not only of the Conservative Party's bias toward the elite but also of its vindictiveness (Margaret Thatcher was widely seen as deliberately punishing Scotland during her long period as prime minister, 1979–1990). Last week saw the first opinion poll showing Yes ahead of No.

I wouldn't bet a dime right now on the outcome of the referendum. Personally, I'm very much inclined to vote Yes, on the grounds that the prospects for an independent Scotland far outweigh the likelihood that the government in Westminster will treat Scotland fairly. But one thing is certain: the ridiculously vague slogan "Better Together" does not successfully encapsulate any reason for voting No.

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