March 18, 2016

I was wrong.

I don't often use my I was wrong tag, but I was distinctly wrong about something that 2 commenters helped me see.

In a post 2 days ago, I took 2 commas out of a sentence written by Scott Adams. He wrote "Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males." For what I thought was clarity, I changed it to "Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American Alpha Males and Women Who Like Alpha Males."

I missed the first commenter who showed my mistake, but noticed, just now, Kristo Miettinen, who said: "Ann, by taking out the commas you changed Scott's meaning. In Scott's taxonomy of identities 'American' and 'alpha male' are two separate things."

I still thought I was right and said:
... I think, in one sense, "male" is the noun and "American" and "alpha" are adjectives, which would make putting a comma between "American" and "alpha" the conventional punctuation. But, like you, I see "alpha male" as a single entity, really a noun. Then "American" modifies "alpha male." Taking out the comma makes that clearer. The picture were supposed to have is of one of the alpha males of America. Think of the animal called the American Water Spaniel. You wouldn't even consider writing "American, water spaniel." 
I noticed the earlier commenter, frose, who'd said:
Professor,

You're usually spot-on with grammar and punctuation questions, but I think you erred this time in removing the commas in the Scott Adams statement. I believe Adams is using Oxford commas to delineate three distinct "identities" -- American[s], Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. I believe Adams erred in leaving off the "s" in "Americans" and that "Americans" is in contrast to "immigrants," which is one of the identities "owned" by Clinton."

Adams quote: "Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities."
Because I didn't reread the full Adams quote, I still thought I was right and said:
I understand that idea, but I don't think that's what Adams meant to say. He's got 2 groups, not 3. One group is male and the other is female. The males are alpha and the females are the females who love them. There's no reason to dump "Americans" into that discussion. And the idea makes so little sense that I'm contemplating whether you're doing humor. If so, I get it. 
Finally, reading that second sentence — "Clinton is well on her way..." — I said:
Okay, I looked back at the context, and I can see that both of these commenters are making the same point.

"Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities."

"American" is one of the identities that Trump "owns." And he owns 2 others: Alpha Males and Women Who Like Alpha Males.

The identities Clinton owns are people who may be American citizens, but they don't have "American" as their identity.

I concede the point. I think you are right and didn't see it that way before.

Thanks for commenting!
Seriously, thanks. And thanks to all readers who've been interested enough in commas and meaning to read this whole post. Hello to all who've come this far — all you commas-and-meaning enthusiasts.

AND: Was an "s" was needed on "American"?, as frose said. The identity is "American." But everything else Adams lists is put in the plural. Parallelism would have helped me see "American" as a separate identity. And, of course, "Americans" could not be mistaken for an adjective, which was my original mistake. I think I'd like the 2 sentences best if all the identities were singular, so that each thing on the list calls up a specific archetype — the Angry Woman, etc.

53 comments:

rhhardin said...

The commas just serve to keep it ambiguous. Adams gets a RECAST if it matters to him.

David Begley said...


It takes a big woman to admit a mistake. Trump NEVER admits a mistake.

Michael K said...

I agree with the commenters. "Americans" is now an identity in this country that consists of a subgroup of citizens who join the military and fly flags on their houses. It didn't used to be that way but it is now. John Kerry is the classic example of someone who, while a long term citizen, does not identify with "American" and is vaguely ashamed of the other sort.

It is not really class thing so much as an emotional attachment to "American values" as exemplified by 1950s American society. It began to change in the 1960s as a result of Vietnam but also a sorting by political identity. Nixon called it "The Silent Majority" but my daughter's American History class identified Silent Majority as "white people who did not accept the 1964 Civil Rights Act." Somewhere between those two points the change was completed.

John Tuffnell said...

Boy George Likes your post.

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon
You come and go
You come and go

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, I had bad Comma.

Hagar said...

It's an upside-down world when some "illegal aliens" are more "American" than many of the native born.

Laslo Spatula said...

From one of your previous "I was wrong" posts:

"And I'd just like to say that of all the movies that ever made me laugh, "The Disorderly Orderly" is in my top 5 of most laughing."

No judgment meant -- the line just popped out at me.

Althouse, Jerry Lewis.

Althouse Jerry Lewis.

Althouse Jerry, Lewis.

I am Laslo.

Coconuss Network said...

Far too many commas in American English. The Germans would say adieu to the commas and side with Annie. I personally favor Annie's version.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

AND: Was an "s" was needed on "American," as frose The identity is "American."

Now you're just screwing with us.

tim maguire said...

The ambiguity is not helped by the phrase "owns the identity." I don't know what that means. It's hard to see how he could own "American" and "alpha-male" as separate things unless the alpha males aren't American, in which case, for what purpose would he own their identity?

Maybe he meant that Trump is the candidate of choice for people who think of themselves first and foremost as "American," but that creates a problem for the next group as I doubt any alpha male thinks of himself first and foremost as an alpha male. Perhaps the rest of us are supposed to think "Trump" when we hear "American" or "alpha male," and maybe we do, but that's a weird way of putting it.

brentfinley said...

Ann -

Interesting post. As far as the American vs. Americans. To me Americans talks about a group of people, as in "We are all Americans". Using the plural includes those who are listed as being owned by Clinton.

American, in my reading, represents that subgroup of Americans who have a strong affiliation with what they self define as a set of values, as they believe that set is uniquely American.

Otto said...

You didn't have bad comma, Adams had bad pluralism. We need a Strunk revival.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I think it's asinine to use the term "alpha male" unless one is referring to a gorilla or a wolf or something along those lines.

And people!!! Stop saying "evolve" when you mean "change."

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

"Beta male" is more stupid than stupid. When the fuck did it come to mean "loser?" The beta male usually ascends to become the alpha male. Jesus shit! Al Gore might not be everyone's favorite person but he a screaming success. I should be such a beta male . . . and so should you.

rhhardin said...

It's time for a beta male march across America. Down with oppression!

It should be easy to organize.

Bob Boyd said...

@ Eric the Fruit Bat

Al Gore brought that on himself.

Ken B said...

That's what you get for reading commas in only two dimensions.

Tank said...

It is embarrassing to me that this is interesting to me.

For ten points, name that construction !

traditionalguy said...

OK. For want of a comma, a meaning was lost.

Now, back to religion, sex and politics.

Phil 3:14 said...

When in doubt, revert to grammar.

"I like the crease of his punctuation."

Danno said...

I would never bet against Ann on anything punctuation related, or anything else on the use of the English language. I too think Adams' lack of making American plural caused all this fuss. And now I'll go back to being comatose.

Ann Althouse said...

"Now you're just screwing with us."

Sorry. There needed to be a "said." Fixed now. Thanks for pointing it out and sorry to have now stepped on your humor.

Meade said...

You were wrong?

Wrong is Trump trying to own the identities of people.

"Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of Americans..."

Imagine how wrong it would be for Hillary to be well on her way to owning African-Americans...
identities.

mikee said...

So if only Americans are allowed to vote, of course illegitimately and evilly disenfranchising the illegals who support Clinton, does Trump have a chance?

Do illegals have to actually be within the borders of the US to vote, or can they get an absentee illegal immigrant ballot to vote from their home country?

Ann Althouse said...

"I’m so glad I’m a Beta... Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able."

Ann Althouse said...

Scott Adams would probably exult in his success in sending us down a rathole by leaving off an "s."

Danno said...

Meade said, "Imagine how wrong it would be for Hillary to be well on her way to owning African-Americans...identities."

True, but she'll do her best to keep them on the plantation.

Ann Althouse said...

"So if only Americans are allowed to vote, of course illegitimately and evilly disenfranchising the illegals who support Clinton, does Trump have a chance?"

Not all Americans have the identity "American." There are the Americans who scoff at Americans and who see themselves as oriented toward the entire world or to a subgroup within America. They're still American citizens who vote. The American citizen can even say, publicly, frequently, "I don't consider myself an American" and "I hate those people who consider themselves 'Americans'" and still vote in America.

Ann Althouse said...

"That's what you get for reading commas in only two dimensions."

LOL.

Quaestor said...

Retract that "I was wrong". The critique of your edit is tortured and based on supposition rather than knowledge of Adams' intent. It's just a garden variety comma splice that you were right to correct.

Beldar said...

When one must go to this much trouble to interpret prose, it's bad prose.

I understand that Scott Adams is a cartoonist with many fans. But he's a cartoonist, and the most interesting thing about him is his cartoons. His political commentary is puerile, and time spent parsing it is wasted.

coupe said...

If a person has to be wrong about something, then please God! Make mine a comma...

I woke up this morning with acid reflux. I knew I shouldn't have had tortellini for midnight chow.

urp... I was wrong...

Danno said...

Blogger coupe said...If a person has to be wrong about something, then please God! Make mine a comma...

Just wait until Laslo makes an appearance on behalf of colons.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

David Begley said...

It takes a big woman to admit a mistake. Trump NEVER admits a mistake.


Therefore Trump is not a big woman.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

coupe said...I woke up this morning with acid reflux. I knew I shouldn't have had tortellini for midnight chow.

urp... I was wrong...


If you knew you shouldn't have and you in fact shouldn't have then you were right, not wrong. You did the wrong thing despite being right, maybe...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Ann Althouse said...

Fixed now. Thanks for pointing it out and sorry to have now stepped on your humor.

Now you're really screwing with us. Or am I having a comprehension issue:

Was an "s" was needed...

Bushman of the Kohlrabi said...

If it wasn't for The Americans I would never have realized how hot Keri Russell is.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Bushman of the Kohlrabi said...
If it wasn't for The Americans I would never have realized how hot Keri Russell is.


Ahem.

dbp said...

I think Scott Adams would have been more clear had he put the categories in the same order:

Original:

""Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.""

My suggested revision:

Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of Americans, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of immigrants and disenfranchised minorities, beta males and angry women.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...The American citizen can even say, publicly, frequently, "I don't consider myself an American" and "I hate those people who consider themselves 'Americans'" and still vote in America.

Absolutely! Why an American citizen can even be pictured in the NYTimes standing on top of an American flag and still be considered a patriot by large numbers of American citizens. An American citizen can pose for propoganda pictures with members of a military force that's actively killing American troops (even posing on top of weapons used to kill Americans) and still be able to vote in America. Just to make up a couple of examples, of course.

It is interesting what kinds of behaviors and beliefs the Media has decided are disqualifying, isn't it? If you compared the behavior and beliefs of some people the Left supports to behavior and beliefs the Media and Leftist politicians have said "there's no place for X in American society" (or some similar pronouncement) I'll bet it'd be good for a chuckle.

Birches said...

Long live the Oxford comma.

Curious George said...

"David Begley said...

It takes a big woman to admit a mistake. Trump NEVER admits a mistake."

Hillary is a big women. She never admits mistakes.

FullMoon said...

Beldar said... [hush]​[hide comment]

When one must go to this much trouble to interpret prose, it's bad prose.

I understand that Scott Adams is a cartoonist with many fans. But he's a cartoonist, and the most interesting thing about him is his cartoons. His political commentary is puerile, and time spent parsing it is wasted.

Even cartoonists are allowed to have an opinion, and, in my opinion, time spent opining about his opinion, or your opinion is time wasted.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...I don't often use my I was wrong tag, but I was distinctly wrong about something

Whatever you do, do with distinction. If wrong, be distinctly wrong. Good show.

Sammy Finkelman said...

"American" is one of the identities that Trump "owns." And he owns 2 others: Alpha Males and Women Who Like Alpha Males.

Why are two of them plural, and one of them singular?

In fact every other one of those identities, including the 4 identities Hillary Clinton owns, are plural.

I think it is Scott adams who is guilty of using unclear language, not really you who are guilty of misundersatnding him. Even if, if you read more of what he wrote, the meaning of what he was saying, the meaning would then be unmistakeable, he still would be using inconsistent language.

Sammy Finkelman said...

Coconuss Network said...3/18/16, 8:34 AM

Far too many commas in American English. The Germans would say adieu to the commas

And get rid of someof the spaces between words.

Ken B said...

"Long live the Oxford comma."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_i1xk07o4g

Bruce said...

Eric the Fruitbat said:

'"Beta male" is more stupid than stupid. When the fuck did it come to mean "loser?" The beta male usually ascends to become the alpha male.'

This is a pet peeve of mine as well. People use "beta male" where "gamma male" would be appropriate. A beta male is the lieutenant, the vice president of a company, the second in command.

The follower/loser/powerless male is a gamma male.

Meade said...

I used to be an awlpha male but then I improved and now I'm betta.

Jeffrey said...

It's amazing to me how much, over the years, I have come to loathe Althouse--Althouse the person, not the blog.

frose said...

Althouse said:

Scott Adams would probably exult in his success in sending us down a rathole by leaving off an "s."

Have you asked him, professor? I'd love to know his response.

Thank you for reading your commenters so closely and for your detailed posts in reply.

Ann Althouse said...

"Have you asked him, professor? I'd love to know his response."

It's up to him to notice me and decide it suits his taste to react. I'm noticeable enough. Just.

frose said...

Oh I see what you did there, professor.