• Date of Class: 1/29
  • First due: 2/5
  • Comments due: 2/12
  • Revisions due: 2/19

In this class, we discussed the history of the United States, and where the concept of ‘is/are’ came from.

To start the class, we discussed a few interesting examples of ‘is’ or ‘are’ usage that we’d found by exploring Google n-grams. Some of those examples included:

Jaclyn’s favorite, “because it contradicts itself within the same text”

1838: ‘Political Grammar of the US’ book has “US are…”

We concluded that Google Book’s results certainly weren’t as infalliable as we might expect. Many of the examples we pulled showed issues with the way books were categorized – for example, “the commerce of The United States is essential, if not to their existence…” Given these mixed results, we discussed whether using Google n-grams was still a valid tool for analysis, and concluded that while it certainly isn’t perfect, there’s hopefully an equal amount of statistically noise on either side to ensure that correctly labeled data reflects trends.

As part of this conversation, we also talked about the dicussion of the Richmond Dispatch in Is or Are, and why the authors concluded that ‘the United States is’ was used so heavily in a Confederate newspaper – namely that it helped Dispatch writers represent the US as a single enemy entity, and reinforced the idealogical difference between the idea of ‘united states’ versus a ‘confederacy’. Because the Dispatch had the cultural reach that a paper like the NYT has today, we concluded that it was likely to have influenced the way people considered the use of is/are. We also considered the possibility that newspapers and other similar publications might have had some kind of style guide (see ‘Political Grammar of the US’ example) that controlled their use of is vs are.

Given the possible existence of these kinds of style requirements and similar constraints, we discussed whether there could be a lag between when people starting saying “the United States is” and when they began to write it. We concluded that it would be difficult to figure out whether this was the case, but that one could look at more personal documents currently not contained in the google books corpus, like letters and diaries, to gain a better understanding of the popular vernacular. We decided that even if there was such a lag, analysis like the is/are graph can still tell us that a change in usage acutally occured, even if it can’t pinpoint when/how people began to say “the United States is” more frequently. Despite the fact that this lag (which, thanks to later course readings, we know exists, and is roughly a decade long) does make it impossible to exactly date a cultural pheomenon like the is vs are change, I do think that is valuable to know that such a change occured, especially when we are trying to study/summarize broad cultural shifts. Overall, the class concluded that we would be interested in learning more/better understanding the lag between pop culture and print, and how it is sustained.

We also talked about the possiblity that there were several regional centers of popular culture during the time immediately before and after the civil war, and whether it was valid to aggregate writings from all of these different centers in order to make claims about the opinions of the US as a whole. We concluded that this might be a reason the the authors of Is or Are noted that fiction took a much longer time to move to ‘is’ usage than expected. We noted that a possible interesting final project idea might be to use one of the databases we’ve discussed in class to seperate texts by publisher/author location, and to analyze whether writings from different regions might show differences in the progression of is/are usage. A related final project might be to compare the google book corpus to other kinds of data, such as etchings and other cultural artifacts, to analyze how relevant the content of books contained in the google corpus is to events that were happening at the time.

Other interesting parts of this dicussion

  • the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written to be used by any country
  • re the analysis of Supreme Court writings dicussed in the readings: was the change in is vs are usage the result of judges changing the way they referred to the US over time, or the result of older ‘are’ using judges with new ‘is’ using judges over the years?