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Asked and answered

I told you I wasn’t going back to guns, and I meant it. My first post on the grammar of the Second Amendment provoked such intemperate and uninformed commentary that I attempted to clarify and expand on the point in a second, third and fourth post, hoping to establish the limited ground of my argument.

But now my Kent County colleague, Craig O’Donnell, comes up with a citation from the UC Davis Law Review, an article by Carl T. Bogus,* “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” which raises a number of interesting points. Mr. Bogus argues, in brief, that the Second Amendment was developed, not as an instrument to enable the populace to resist governmental tyranny, but rather as a guarantee to the Southern states that the general government would not use federal authority to disarm the state militia, the white population’s principal defense against slave insurrections.

You can read the article itself, which describes the historical background in some detail (and bristles with citations).

But if you continue to hold adamantly to the belief that citizens must arm themselves for protection against governmental tyranny, perhaps you might consider the means by which firearms can be made generally available to African-Americans and Native Americans. They are, after all, the segments of the population who have historically been victims of governmental oppression and lawless violence.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled pedantry.

Aaron Brager, a distinguished graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, offer the sentence, Who'd you've lunch with? and asks, “Is it simply awkward-sounding, or is it grammatically incorrect?”

It’s awkward and non-idiomatic. Contracting the verb have usually occurs when the verb is an auxiliary, not the main verb: Who’d you’ve preferred to have lunch with? Not elegant, but not compelling the reader/hearer to backtrack to determine whether something has been left out.

A reader who heard my carrying on about National Grammar Day on Dan Rodricks’ Midday show on WYPR-FM, writes: “The grammatical mistake that drives me crazy is responding with ‘good’ when asked ‘how are you?’ I hear ‘good’ being used as a response, in schools, on NPR, on television — everywhere. Please make them stop!”

Leaving aside the reader’s touching faith in my powers to get anyone to do anything, I’m inclined to tell her to learn to live with it. I expect she wants the response to be “Well” or “I am well.” But that is to misunderstand the point of the question.

“How are you?” is not a question about one’s health, and it would be a mistake to respond to it with an inventory of aches, pains and complaints. While not actively insincere, it is a purely conventional formula. It is a shorthand for “I recognize you as a human being of my acquaintance and wish to initiate a conversation.” Since it is not really a question, the substance of the reply does not matter so long as it is not outright rude.

For my part, on a good day, I answer, “Tolerable,” sometimes rendering it as the Southern “tollable.” On a bad day, “Peachy.”


* Professor Bogus teaches at the School of Law at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (5)


It does seem strange that such "southern states rights" were never mentioned in the press or writings of the period from 1788 to 1960.

I have read Professor Bogus' papers, even had some contact with him. His work on this subject is very imaginative and will shortly be commented upon by the Supreme Court and I'm sure dismissed.

Perhaps I misunderstand Mr. Macklin's first sentence I'm sure he doesn't mean that Southern states' rights was never an issue from 1788 to 1960 -- the parents of States Rights Gist, the South Carolina secessionist would have found such a contention odd. Perhaps he means states' rights solely in the context of arms. I'm not thoroughly enough acquainted with the literature of the Federal era to say so, but I suspect that much was not spoken openly. Garry Wills in "'Negro President': Jefferson and the Slave Power" points out how much talk about states rights was linked to the need of the slaveholding states to maintain their disproportionate power in the federal government through the nortorious "three-fifths" clause of the Constitution.

As to Mr. Macklin's second sentence, the court says what the law is, but it cannot say what history is. And even if it makes categorical statements in its opinions, they may still be (cough, Dred Scott, cough) room for other views.

Interestingly that you should cite the Dred Scott Decision. In his opinion, Tauney argues that if negroes were citizens, then they would have the right to keep and bear arms. By his lights, obviously not acceptible. Most modern firearms prohibition laws have the same purpose, DC's especially.

On the "how are you?" convention: I expect you know that in England the convention was that the appropriate reply to the question "How do you do?" (pronounced as two and a half syllables: "Howdy'doo") was simply to repeat it: "How do you do?"

But what gets on my nerves with the American response to the question, "How are you?" is the obvious hyperbole: "Fantastic!" -- the product, I suspect, of the peculiarly American tendency to present the world, and one's personal experience of it, as unfailingly wonderful, problem-free, and eminently manageable. Negativity, or even realism, has become a cardinal sin. Ask a Central European how they are, and you are likely to get, not a laundry list of ailments, but at least an indication that life is hard and filled with challenges, but one does the best one can.

Because I consider my self to be "cute", my public response is often John's, Peachy!" My friends more commonly receive, "Normal, for me," as a response, with a variety of different inflections to communicate my real thoughts on how I am at the moment.

As a card carrying Optimist, when I encounter another of my ilk, I will provide a positive and enthusiastic response that affirms our Optimism.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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