US Constitution - "more perfect union"

The Preamble to the United States Constitution begins:

(capitalization modernized)

The other day, I caught a little bit of Robert Wuhl’s HBO special in which he decries this as a grammatical error. Now, I know better than to accept anything an actor, especially a comic actor, would say as part of a routine as their actual beliefs, but it got me wondering: are there people who legitimately think this is a grammatical error?

Are there people who don’t understand that what is being said is “We don’t fool ourselves into thinking we can create a perfect union, but what we’re setting forth here is, we believe, closer to perfect than what we’ve been living with so far.”

Sorry if this isn’t GQey enough, but I’m curious to know if Dopers have actually encountered serious questioning of this “grammatical error.”

I always thought it was in reference to The Articles of Confederation, which was adopted in 1777. The founders then got together a few years later to revise it and produced what we now think of as The Constitution, ratified in 1787. It’s a revision - hence “more” perfect union.

Total WAG: Maybe the “more perfect” phrase was an “out” for abolitionists to go ahead and support the Constitution despite the fact it failed to “properly” address slavery.

Bryan Garner, one of the leading authorities on American English grammar and usage, addressed this topic:

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage 19 (2003), s.v. adjectives (uncomaprable adjectives).

Plus, the edit would really screw up the scansion of that Schoolhouse Rock song.

Were there any significant numbers of abolitionists in 1788? Ferrand in his book “The Framing of the Constitution” suggests that slavery per se was not an issue at the Constitutional Convention - only how to accomodate it, for example in the three-fifths rule and the eventual prohibition on import of slaves.

Technically, yes, it’s a grammatical error. There are no degrees of “perfect.” I don’t buy Garner’s defense (which he doesn’t even really explain from what I can see in the quoted portion).

So you’re saying that you can’t see that “more perfect” is a stylistic choice meaning “closer to perfect,” then, Diogenes?

Okay, question answered. Mods, feel free to close.

Why would they close this thread?

I guess you either buy the stylistic argument or you don’t. We can’t read the authors’ minds. Technically, it is grammatically incorrect, though. Sometimes writers intentionally go outside grammatical rules for stylistic reasons, but just because it’s intentional doesn’t mean it’s not still technically incorrect. I think the only question s whether it was intentional or not in this case (in which case the word “error” may not be precisely accurate), and I don’t think that’s a question we can answer definitively.

I think you’re all wrong. Or at least, Garry Wills would argue that way, based on what he writes in his A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

There is no grammatical error at all. It is not an error in any way, and it was obviously intensional. It is merely the case that the older meaning - a technical, legal meaning at that - has been forgotten except by historians.

I wouldn’t argue with Garry Wills’s point, but in another way it’s also acceptable: Where the absolute adjective constitutes a limit, e.g., “perfect,” “unique,” the comparative and superlative are understood to mean more nearly and most nearly whatever limiting condition the absolute describes as being aspired to.

Neopilina is the most unique mollusc,” a possible sentence, does not attempt to set up degrees of uniqueness, which is of course an absolute meaning one-of-a-kind, but rather identifies Neopilina as being unique in some character or degree not true for any other mollusc. (In this case, it’s the only surviving genus of its class.)

[nitpick]It hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Security interests must still be perfected. Good luck trying to enforce an un-perfected UCC-1. “Perfect” as a legal term of art is still in use.[/np]

To answer the OP however, I would consider it a grammatical error if interpreted with the modern meaning of “perfect.” But you probably shouldn’t listen to me, since I still believe you shouldn’t split infinitives.

Because my question, whether there were folks who honestly held this view, has been answered. I’m already a little reticent about this being a GQ, I certainly don’t want to clog up the board with it if it’s been answered.

Oh, and I don’t disagree that one could argue that it is “technically” a grammatical error, I simply don’t hold much faith in such prescriptive interpretations of grammar. I believe that if a native speaker of English understands perfectly what is being said, then the statement is grammatical.

I like the angle Exapno Mapcase brings to the discussion, also. That had not occurred to me when I OPed, but given the meaning of a term like “past perfect,” should have.

Wait a moment! You (generic you) felt it was alright to modernize the capitalization, but then question the word choice?

It seems strange to me that we can accept one difference in language yet want to complain about another. Languages and styles change; it’s that simple.

Just because we find a construction awkward doesn’t mean it was at the time it was written. Is there any evidence that people had trouble understanding it at the time? Or thought it sounded bad? If not, then any trouble we have with it is because of changes in the language itself.

Linguistically, I’ll note that the English language went through a quasi-Latin rules binge in the nineteenth century. A lot of things we’d find illogical was perfectly acceptable at that time.

If Ann Coulter had written the Constitution it would read: “We The Christians, in order to form more perfected jews…”


I know this is meant as a joke, but please keep political comments out of GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Whoops. This post was just reported now, and I didn’t notice it was more than a week old.

I’m going to close it, as the OP suggested.