Genetic effects on syntax, usage and punctuation

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In yesterday's Doonesbury, Earl and Duke discuss possible angles for a PR campaign in favor of Texas secession:

Here's the petition text:

The US continues to suffer economic difficulties stemming from the federal government's neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending. The citizens of the US suffer from blatant abuses of their rights such as the NDAA, the TSA, etc. Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union, and to do so would protect it's citizens' standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government.

I don't see any actual syntax errors. I'm no copy editor, but my tally of "errors in … usage and punctuation" is:

  • one spelling error ("it's citizens' standard of living");
  • three places where commas perhaps should have been placed ("…abuse of their rights _ such as the NDAA…",  "… their rights and liberties _ in accordance with…", …the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers _ which are no longer being reflected…");
  • one questionable nominal complement ("… the federal government's neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending"), or perhaps this is a questionable noun choice (neglect instead of failure);
  • one questionable verb choice (reflect in "the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government").

The text is awkwardly expressed in other ways, but I don't think it's fair to describe it as "filled with errors in syntax, usage and punctuation". "Badly written and politically loopy" is nearer the mark, in my opinion.

The interesting thing here is Earl's idea that the popularity of this text in Texas is evidence for a eugenic rather than a political or educational problem.

The strip above is the fourth of a series of (so far) five strips on the Texas secession issue. Here are the first three:

Today's strip continues the story, though without additional linguistic or genetic observations:

As John Bainbridge wrote in The New Yorker in 1961,

It is currently fashionable among the more advanced spirits in this country to look upon Texas with an air of amused condescension.


  1. Jonathon said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    The only thing I see that could be described as a syntactic error is the complementation of the noun neglect with an infinitival clause. It's usually followed by of. But I'm not sure if this is a true error or simply a rather uncommon collocation.

    [(myl) A quick Google Books search turns up things like "The ignorance of law on the part of the marshal as to the duties required of him by law is no excuse for his neglect to perform them", and "The action against the sheriff, in such a case, is founded upon his neglect to return the execution", and "Held, that plaintiff failed to show that his neglect to prosecute was reasonable", and so on, suggesting that nominal "neglect to VP" is common in legal circles.]

  2. Mary Sweeten said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    That should be "its citizens' rights," not "it's"

    [(myl) I'm not sure what you mean — the phrase you cite doesn't appear in the text.]

  3. Steve said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    I'm not sure if it is a "syntactic" error, but there is something off about referring to the "TSA" as one of many "abuses" of the rights of the citizens of the US that is "suffer[ed]." Surely the author means that the citizens suffer abuses of their rights at the hands of federal agencies such as the TSA, or that the citizens suffer abuses of their rights through the actions of the TSA. I am pretty sure the intended meaning is not that the mere fact that the TSA exists is a blatant abuse of their rights (that is, that this would be an abuse regardless of how the TSA and its employees went about performing their duties). I have no idea what the NDAA is so I'm not sure if it is a syntactic fit with the sentence or not.

    I also love that the author gives only two, rather cryptic, examples of "blatant" violations and then wraps it up with "etc.". Surely the question of whether there are "blatant violations" of the rights of the citizens is an important enough issue to warrant more than two (vague) examples and then trailing off with an anti-climatic "etc."! But, of course, that is merely an example of poor writing (and perhaps loopy thinking),not a syntactical or grammatical error.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    Apostrophe usage seems a topic that attracts particularly strong peevery (although the weird sort where the peevers are basically correct, i.e. the rule they argue for is, in fact, the actual one that a descriptivist account of the prestige dialect would identify) and perhaps one where the class-snobbery angle of the peevery is esp. strong (the so-called 'greengrocers' apostrophe' was presumably so dubbed by someone who felt his own line of work superior to that of a greengrocer). But I must say I've never previously seen a suggestion that there are genetic predispositions to correct v. incorrect apostrophe usage. I would love to hear the sociobiological just-so story about how apostrophe usage contributed to reproductive success back on the African savanna.

    [(myl) Technically, a trait doesn't need to be (or to have been) subject to selective pressure in order to be heritable — the pool of unselected variation is just hanging around, waiting for the right environment to arise…

    And even a geographically-uneven distribution of a trait doesn't logically entail that natural selection (or even sexual selection) has been at work — though I admit that it would be a stretch to claim a "founder effect" on the distribution in Texas of a (hypothetical) disposition to misspell "its".]

  5. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    Maybe off-topic, but it's interesting that it's apparently acceptable to link IQ or cognitive ability, including linguistic ability, with heredity, provided you're a liberal and your targets are white Southern conservatives. Usually that kind of talk gets you fired from your job (qv. James Watson). Jus' sayin'.

    [(myl) This is both true and relevant; related observations have come up frequently on LL, e.g. here, here, here, here, and (linked in the above post) here. But note that "the last acceptable form of SOME_IMMORAL_ATTITUDE" is a somewhat more widespread trope.]

    Regarding the grammar, I think the petition shows poor command of formal English style, and I would further argue that examples like "neglect to inform" is prescriptively ungrammatical. Obviously, when non-linguists talk about grammatical and ungrammatical, they mean in the prescriptive sense. To treat their usage of "grammatical" as if they intended it in the descriptive sense seems to be a category error.

    To the objection that it is our jobs as linguists to oppose prescriptivism in all its forms, I would counter that it is our job to oppose prescriptive rules that have no basis in traditional literary usage and that are based on faulty understanding of what grammar is, e.g. singular "they", the split infinitive. But not all prescriptive rules are without such basis; these are the rules that even linguists strive to conform to when writing their papers, for example.

  6. CuConnacht said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    The kind of people who collect pet peeves used to object to "stem from" meaning "arise from" on the grounds that in English (unlike German stammen aus) "stem" only means "hold back" as in "stem the tide".

  7. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer

    Well, presumably it wasn't proper apostrophe usage as such that contributed to reproductive success on the savanna. But observing the same social conventions our fellow hominids did was probably a good idea. Since they hadn't developed language yet, it's hard to say what the Australopithecine equivalent of a misplaced modifier or a restrictive "which" might have been. But peevery was likely expressed somewhat more violently than it tends to be now.

  8. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    Whew, obviously my hunger is getting the better of my reason. I see that Mark already addressed the usage of "neglect to" and found evidence of common usage in legal texts, and I suppose this petition counts as a member of that genre (perhaps).

  9. Rubrick said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    It's a little odd to characterize the NDAA and TSA as "abuses", rather than abusers. Normally one would consider an abuse to be an action, not an organization.

  10. Bob said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    I have lived in both cold-war Berlin and Texas. Texas is much worse.

  11. richardelguru said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    Bob: If I owned Hell and Texas I'd sell Texas and live in Hell.

    [(myl) I think that this is the kind of joke that's fine when it comes from the group affected, but in questionable taste when it comes from outsiders.]

  12. Andy Averill said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

    it's as a possessive used to be perfectly standard. Thomas Jefferson used it a lot. Where do descriptivists draw the line past which they call something an error?

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 12:21 am

    I'd say that Texas has, not is, the 15th-largest economy in the world.

    Also, I'm not happy with "practically". First, the AHD says in its Usage Note on "practicable", "For the purpose of ordering coffee in a Parisian café, it would be practical (that is, useful) to learn some French, but it still might not be practicable for someone with a busy schedule and little time to learn." So I think "practicably" would be better.

    Second, "feasible" means "feasible in practice", as far as I can tell, so even "practicably" is redundant. (There's such a thing as "feasible in theory", but you have to specify "in theory".)

    Finally, "practically" garden-paths the reader with the more common (though sometimes peeved) meaning of "almost", "virtually".

    @J. W. Brewer: Leaving the offensiveness aside, the argument would be that people inherit whatever cognitive ability (overall intelligence, verbal skill, facility and care with arbitrary rules, acceptance that one might make mistakes) leads some English speakers to get "its" and "it's" right.

  14. Joshua said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:00 am

    I note that the White House web site says, "Creating a duplicate or similar petition will make it harder for you to get an official response. Instead, sign and help promote the one that has already been created." Hence, even if many of the signers knew or believed that there may be problems with the usage or punctuation in the secession petition, they had been advised not to create a better-edited replacement petition, nor did they have the ability to copy-edit the existing petition. And many other petitions on the White House web site have similar problems of punctuation, spelling, etc., regardless of the ideology or viewpoint expressed.

    I did find one petition that I would consider signing, however.

  15. tkavanag said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    re:"[(myl) I think that this is the kind of joke that's fine when it comes from the group affected, but in questionable taste when it comes from outsiders.]"

    How about this:
    "Poor New Mexico, so far from Heaven, so close to Texas." (Attributed to Manuel Armijo, last Mexican governor of New Mexico, 1841)

    [(myl) There's also the version attributed to Porfirio Diaz, "Poor Mexico — so far from God, so close to the United States". I suppose that we could segue into a list of jokes, riddles, and apothegms asserting or implying negative assessments of nations, regions, cities, and neighborhoods — a topic for another post.

    But this post had two points: first, that Earl was giving fictional voice to a fairly common attitude that associates linguistic choices with "breeding", in the literal as well metaphorical sense; and second, that it remains "fashionable among the more advanced spirits in this country to look upon Texas with an air of amused condescension".

    In that context, piling up proverbial Texas-bashing is not really topic drift, it's more like a (gentler version of) a commenter who tries to refute speculation about racist motivations by ranting about watermelon-eating spearchuckers.]

  16. tkavanag said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    addendum: this was after having repulsed the 1841 Texican invasion of New Mexico. The Republic of Texas claimed that, on the basis of the Treaty of San Jacinto (IIRC), its territory included everything north and east of the Rio Grande, i.e., all of eastern New Mexico, including the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. To further these claims, Texas launched two invasions in New Mexico, both abysmal failures.

  17. richardelguru said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 7:32 am

    Don't you know where I live?

    I've always looked at is as more of a joke about the weather down here in the Summer than any pique on the part of Sheridan.

    And anyway I was merely amplifying Bob's comment.

    [(myl) Oops, sorry — wasn't paying attention.

    I've certainly heard the "rent out Texas and live in hell" joke from more than a few Texans, and I guess it's as much a kind of tribute to regional toughness as anything else.]

  18. Jon Weinberg said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    Myl @ Dec 14 12:59: The legal-text examples you've found of neglect-as-a-noun-followed-by-an-infinitive are almost all from the nineteenth century. I suspect that that usage has almost entirely died out; I've been a U.S. lawyer and law professor for thirty years, and it certainly sounds odd to my ears.

  19. Michael P said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    Doonesbury long ago descended into pathetic diatribes. Besides the misalleged grammar errors, didn't G. B. Trudeau notice that a great many of the almost 120,000 signatories to the Texas petition are, erm, not Texans? Out of the last 60 signatories listed when I checked, a total of five listed Texas locations. I rather suspect that many of the signatures from New York City, Los Angeles, and the like are from people who would rather see Texas leave than go with it.

    Well, it IS a comic strip. And don't all diatribes seem pathetic to those who aren't members of the relevant group? To outsiders, the secession petitions seem about as pathetic as diatribes get these days.]

    On the "neglect to verb" form, Google Ngram Viewer finds that the frequency of "neglect to" and "neglected to" have both dropped quite a bit since 1800, but it still sounds natural to me. I suspect that the word choice of "neglect" to name crimes when it comes to providing insufficient care for others is a major driver of that drift in usage. Still, quick searches on Google found recent uses of "neglected to feed" (an animal) and "neglected to upload" (a password file).

    [(myl) The verbal complement form (as in "he neglected to feed the cows") is normal and currently idiomatic, it's clear. But we're talking about a nominal complement, as in "his neglect to feed the cows".]

  20. Peter Lewis said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    Seconding Jerry Friedman on all his points; the redundancy of "practically feasible" is one of the first things that jumped out at me.

    Anyway, this is a good example of why I don't read Doonesbury anymore. If you're going to be a snob, at least be funny.

  21. Peter Lewis said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    "don't all diatribes seem pathetic to those who aren't members of the relevant group?"

    Well, I'm a liberal, but I've read well-written conservative diatribes against liberals that made me laugh and didn't seem at all "pathetic."

    "To outsiders, the secession petitions seem about as pathetic as diatribes get these days."

    "Pathetic" in that it's a hopeless cause? I guess so, but not in any other sense of the word. And it can be perfectly rational to petition for a hopeless or "stunt" cause in order to draw attention to related issues, right?

  22. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    I don't even mind that much that Trudeau attributes bad genes to Texans. Too much comedy does involve offending someone's sensibilities somewhere; if we had to ban jokes that made people feel bad, we would have to ban most humor. I just couldn't help think that the same readers who laugh at Doonesbury would probably get into a frightful self-righteous fury if the same kind of attribution were made against groups they consider sacrosanct, and would probably go on to instigate some kind of boycott or other pressure to get an apology and the joke retracted.

    Basically, people in general need to grow up and learn to live with a few insults.

    [(myl) Most of us do live with potentially-insulting jokes, more than a few of them, most of our lives. The context, the intent, and the effect are all worth thinking about, though. Jokes that would be harmless fun in one set of circumstances might amount to systematic bullying, or an attempt to pick a fight, in another context.

    Given what seem to be deepening class, regional and ethnic divisions in the U.S. and beyond, I think it's a good idea to pay attention to the intent and effect of such jokes, especially very public ones. Sometimes there are groups that deserve a little ridicule, or at least those that tell the jokes think so. Sometimes maybe these jokes defuse tensions by bringing conflicts into the open. Sometimes perhaps they comfort the laughers more than they annoy the laughed-at. But in general I think that regional or ethnic jokes, told by outsiders in the presence of the group being made fun of, tend to be mean-spirited in intent and negative in effect.]

  23. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    Good points, Mark.

  24. Karl Weber said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    All of us have perceptions that are shaped by our own backgrounds (I'm a lifelong New Yorker), but it seems to me that most of the Southern-bashing in American culture takes the form of supposedly humorous stereotypes as in the Doonesbury strip, while Northern-bashing is fairly common in supposedly serious political commentary, as when conservatives use "Massachusetts" and "New York" as terms of abuse. Not sure which is worse.

  25. wally said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    A small report on the effect this strip had here in Austin. I made a full color, thanks to this post, copy of Fridays strip mentioning Austin. I went to 4 different parties Saturday night, it's that season. At each party I asked at least some people if they had seen the strip. The demographics here were of course varied, but generally young middle age to retirement age, and I would be surprised if anyone did not have at least a college degree.

    I was amazed that only a small fraction had actually seen it or heard about it, (and I was shocked that about an equal number did not know what I was talking about when I said Doonesbury). Nobody disagreed with the sentiment of the strip, tho, after they read it.

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 4:09 am

    I must admit I raced to sign the petition as soon as I was alerted, when there were only 90K signatures, at the time more than on all the other secession petitions combined. Scanning signature records then, I found that more than half of the last several hundred that day, of those that listed any location, were from addresses in Texas. My guess would have been that the majority would be from New York and California, but those were surprisingly scarce.

    Aside from the Austin problem, among Texas's 36 congressional representatives 12 identify with the minority bloc. They represent most of the southern and western counties. Their supporters would arguably be worse off in a new Republic of Texas. But according to written law, Texas, uniquely, is free to secede on its own say-so — they reserved that right when they joined. Texans don't need to petition the President, or the Congress, or anybody but their own legislature.

    ](myl) As I understand it, this position was explicitly contradicted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. White (1869). And according to Jay Jordan, "Secession talks uncover myths, misconceptions of Texas law", The Houstonian 11/15/2012:

    Many students across the state are taught to believe that due to Texas’ unique history and previous independence, the state is allowed to leave the Union whenever it pleases.

    “That’s a false assumption,” political science professor Michael Smith said. “Texas can break up into five states if it chooses, but as far as secession, no.”

    The Texas Tribune holds the same view:

    Texas cannot actually secede from the union. The 1845 Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas omits the right to secede but affirms Texas' right to divide itself into five states if it chooses.

    And Snopes says that

    Another Texas-related legend holds that the Texans negotiated an annexation treaty which reserved to them the right to secede from the Union without the consent of the U.S. Congress, but the terms of Texas' annexation contain no such provision.

    The text of the 1845 resolution is here. Note also that this resolution states that

    New States of convenient size not exceeding four in number, in addition to said State of Texas and having sufficient population, may, hereafter by the consent of said State, be formed out of the territory thereof, which shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

    which clearly indicates that the additional four notional states could not be created by the unilateral action of the Texas state government, but would be subject "to admission under the provisions of the Federal Constitution". The Federal Constitution states (Article IV, Section 3) that

    New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

    So it seems that you've been taken in by a (perhaps comforting) myth.]

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    I'm not sure where in the country Jon Weinberg has been practicing law these last few decades (and there may be significant regional variation in legalese), but that "neglect to" construction didn't sound particularly odd or archaic to me, and I was able to find an instance of it in a New York state appellate decision less than a decade old (In re Gill, 3 A.D.3d 109 (1st Dep’t 2004)) in less than a minute's googling (note the thesaurus-waving parallelism of default/failure/neglect): "In view of his default in filing an affidavit of compliance, his failure to contest clear evidence of his violation of the order of suspension and his neglect to seek reinstatement, respondent is subject to disbarment without further proceedings."

  28. MJ said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    Regarding the idea that "people in general need to grow up and learn to live with a few insults", I would quote J-Smooth ( here:

    "[This] illustrates where a lot of us are at right now with race in america. We're in a new place right now. We're not in The Promised Land, but we're a few steps further down that road than we've ever been before. And as we make progress, we get more comfortable. And as we get more comfortable some of us get a little… extra comfortable. We start acting as if coming closer together means not having to care how our words affect each other. We start assuming we can make any kinda joke or use any kind of epithet without any kind of second thought because now that we've made all this progress – everyone's always gonna know we don't mean it like that.


    Nooooooooo! That is not how this thing is gonna work!

    …In any healthy relationship, the closer you get, the more you care about how you affect each other…and yet, somehow, in our racial interactions, we tend to forget that. And start thinking coming closer together means we can care less about how we affect each other."

    Also interesting is Todd Glass's interview on Mark Maron's WTF? podcast, where he came out, and discussed the use of the word "gay" as a pejorative adjective:

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    Thank you, Mark, for the detailed correction.

    Your sources seemed to be suggesting that Texas could field another eight senators on their own say-so, which could be horrifying, but then put that to rest, too, mostly. It could still happen, but if the stars aligned that way, horrors far more grave would awaken that by comparison would make an extra eight Texan senators seem like a gift from the younger gods.

  30. Steve Bacher said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    Jerry Friedman said, "I'd say that Texas has, not is, the 15th-largest economy in the world." I wouldn't say either one. I defy you to produce a legitimate list of the largest economies in the world that has Texas, or California, or any other non-nation entity, on the list.

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