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Some short time ago, I stumbled upon a delightful blog known as the ragbag, which I quickly subscribed to after reading about five posts, in no small part because reading it reminds me of the sort of strange conversations I used to have in college with my suitemate and fellow mathemagician. (One of the more memorable of these conversations took place in a physics lecture hall immediately prior to a talk by some famous mathematical physicist, and revolved primarily around my new electric green jacket, which, as a welder’s jacket, happened to be flame-retardant — a fact whose veracity I had confirmed the night before by burning a small hole in the armpit and watching as the flame did not spread. As the conversation grew more intense, covering the potential range of uses of a jacket that would not immediately combust, the fellow seated in front of us turned around and stared at us a moment, almost as though he thought we were unbalanced. That fellow was John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame.)

A recent ragbag post about the first Gordon Bennet Balloon Cup, the world’s oldest dirigible race, led me to his less-recent but still-more-fascinating post about an 1808 duel in which the dueling weapons were blunderbusses and the duelists were two thousand feet above the ground in separate hot-air balloons. The winner successfully shot down the other’s balloon, smashing his foe to the ground in a manner that, while perhaps needlessly brutal, was undeniably stylish. My interest in further details led over to Wikipedia, where by turns I moved from the code duello to deloping to that most famous of duels featured in a “got milk?” commercial, the Burr-Hamilton throwdown.  (By the way, Wikipedia notes that Hamilton may have pushed the duel as a strange suicide plot that would cost his life but also utterly destroy Burr’s.  Sure enough, the duel did lead to then-Vice-President Burr’s fall out of politics and his eventual exile.)

Seeing as I had some looming deadlines, I couldn’t just stop at Burr & Hamilton. I pressed onward through early American history to Burr’s treason, secession attempts, John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Bloody Kansas, and finally, to the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks.

The Sumner-Brooks affair, as it’s genteely called, took place in 1856.  You might remember it from AP U.S. History, where it gets substantial discussion because it captures the zeitgeist of the immediately pre-Civil War period and also features a guy getting walloped with a cane. Charles Sumner was a senator from Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist who delivered a three-hour long and at times personally insulting speech on the floor of Congress lambasting the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors. (This was the act that overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska, and instead allowed slavery in those territories if the voters approved.) A few days later, Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian representative and goatee enthusiast, took umbrage with Sumner’s insults of the act’s authors, one of whom happened to be his uncle. Brooks approached Sumner in a mostly deserted Senate chamber, informed him that certain portions of the speech did not sit well with him, and proceeded to whale mercilessly on Sumner’s head with a cane, stopping only once the cane broke. Senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid were met by another South Carolinian representative, Laurence Keitt, who pointed a pistol at them and shouted “Let them be!” Sumner became a hero in the North, and Brooks a hero in the South. Some other things happened thereafter, something about a Civil War, emancipation, etc., but I have no idea about the details of all that because when we covered those parts of American history in class, I was too busy thinking about duels, canings, and the Whiskey Rebellion.

There’s a famous political cartoon of the Brooks-Sumner affair, one that I’ve known for years and could still sketch from memory; you’ll see it below. But there was one thing about the cartoon that I hadn’t noticed until I looked at it this time.

Yes, there it is, in the caption, a rogue apostrophe sneaking into a plural! A little reminder that apostrophe misuse isn’t new. (And goes back considerably further than 1984.) And it’s not just some private correspondence in which this error occurs; this was a lithograph intended for widespread distribution. Rather amazing, huh? So give the next apostrophe misuser you encounter a break; they just might be the next John L. Magee.

Hopefully this will console some of you prescriptivists who see the misuse of apostrophes to mark plurals as a sign of our society’s descent into barbarism. We might misuse our apostrophes, but at least we don’t try to bash a sitting Senator’s brains in for arguing that slavery is bad! It’s further evidence that societal progress and grammar mistakes are not tied together! In fact, maybe it’s our increased misuse of apostrophes that makes us the enlightened society we are today! Brazenly misuse enough apostrophe’s, and maybe gay couple’s will be treated fairly, everyone will get health care, war’s will end! Just don’t get your hope’s up.


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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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