The O Canada Bill: Third Reading Purgatory & Grammatical Pedantry


In my AP English class in 2004, I recall that several of my classmates protested against diagramming sentences on the erroneous and misplaced grounds that “Our boss will never ask us to diagram a sentence!” (Incidentally, the fact that we were using a 6th-grade textbook from the 1950s in a junior year of high school for what was, ostensibly, the equivalent of a first-year university course, also exposes the horrors and absurdities of the New Pedagogy, which has left students bereft of basic knowledge). Of course, the point of diagramming sentences is not to engage in some sort of didactic job-training per se, but instead, to gain a better understanding of the syntax and grammar of the English language so that you can engage in more logical, disciplined thinking and become a better writer in your job.

But I shall put those Reed-Kellogg Diagrams to good use nevertheless in order to combine my interest in political institutions and my occasional dabbling in linguistic pedantry.

In general, I agree with Senators Fraser and MacDonald and share their opposition to this stupid and pointless O Canada Bill, because, in my view, it conforms to the Liberal Party of Canada’s pattern of sneaking through legislation that derogates from Canadian history, identity, and symbols via Private Members’ Bills. But some of their grammatical critiques of the prosaic phrase, “True patriot love in all of us command” don’t add up.

Sir Robert Stanley Weir’s original English version of O Canada dates from 1908; its first verse said:

O Canada!
Our home, our native land.
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North strong and free;
And Stand on guard,
O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

In 1914, Weir endorsed an alteration that had first appeared the previous year and changed the line “True patriot love thou dost in us command” to “True patriot love in all thy sons command.”

“True patriot love thou dost in us command” is a second-person declarative sentence in the indicative mood. In this poetic style, the object comes before the subject and verb. “Thou”, the second-person singular subject pronoun, refers to Canada. In standard English syntax, the sentence would say, “Canada, thou dost command true patriot love in us.” Those who sing O Canada are thus engaging in a dialogue with Canada as a country, anthropomorphizing Canada, and talking to it as if it were a person.

 

 

 

The lyrics “True patriot love in all thy sons command” retains the poetic word order, where the object comes before the subject and verb, but this second-person imperative sentence in the indicative mood contains only an implied subject, which would still be “Thou, Canada.” In languages whose nouns fall under cases and declensions, like classical Latin, this would be the vocative case. This vocative case exists in languages without declensions, but we wouldn’t think of it as such. In “Hey, you, reader!” the “you” is vocative in function but undifferentiated in form, in the English language. Therefore, as a declarative sentence written in non-poetic syntax, the current lyrics are the direct equivalent of, “Canada, thou commandest true patriot love in all thy sons.”

 

The phrase “True patriot love in all of us command” follows the same general grammatical structure as the line that it would replace. However, the last prepositional phrase shifts from the second person (“in all thy sons”), which sounds reverential, to the first person plural (“in all of us”), which sounds wilful. Its declarative form betrays its prosaic and bland character: “Canada, you command true patriot love in all of us.” And it certainly also sounds worse and less poetic. So I agree with Senator Fraser and Senator MacDonald on that point.

 

 

Senator MacDonald rightly mocks the political correctness of “in all of us command,” but he goes wonky in his ebullient denunciation of its grammatical correctness. The CBC article quoted him as suggesting, “The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase ‘All thy sons command’ is ‘All of our command.’ This is not opinion. This is fact.”

This is not a fact. What he said is demonstrably false, and such phrasing would not conform to the current phrasing. First “thy” is not a pronoun; it’s a possessive adjective equivalent to “your.” As such, “thy sons” means “Canada’s sons.” Second, in the phrase “all thy sons command,” “command” is a verb. But in Senator MacDonald’s bizarre claim, the “command” in “All of our command” would have to be a noun, not a verb — or else it would be complete gibberish. Therefore, Senator MacDonald’s suggestion is what makes no grammatical sense. If Senator MacDonald had taken the time to diagram his sentence, he could have avoided this grammatically incorrect outburst.

This is not a sentence. It is gibberish. I can’t even diagram it properly.

Senator Fraser and Senator MacDonald have taken their last stand against the O Canada Bill, but their war of attrition could fail. Essentially, they propose to keep adjourning the debate on Third Reading before the bill can come to a vote on Third Reading, which it would surely pass. They could lose their war of attrition if the Senate puts the bill to a final vote during their absence. Fraser’s Last Stand could fail as spectacularly as did X3: The Last Stand, and we won’t be able to erase this timeline.

Furthermore, if the Senate passes the O Canada Bill before the House of Commons adjourns for the summer, then the Trudeau government will arrange for Governor General Johnston to give Bill C-210 Royal Assent by Written Declaration in late June, since Royal Assent in Parliament Assembled would draw too much attention to it too early. Then Prime Minister Trudeau will announce in his Canada Day Speech on Parliament Hill that the bill has become law. He will reaffirm his being a feminist, reiterate that he has been working hard for “the middle class,” and close by noting that Parliament had to make the English lyrics to O Canada gender neutral because it’s the current year.

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One Response to The O Canada Bill: Third Reading Purgatory & Grammatical Pedantry

  1. Craig Burley says:

    Yes to this:

    “This is not a fact. What he said is demonstrably false, and such phrasing would not conform to the current phrasing.”

    Which is obviously and trivially true, and certainly highlights the fact that Senator MacDonald should put his hands up and back far, far away from the prescritptivism. But it does nicely illustrate Burley’s Law of English Usage: “All corrections are incorrections”.

    But as to this:

    “Its declarative form betrays its prosaic and bland character: “Canada, you command true patriot love you in all of us.””

    Yeah, that’s also trivially incorrect.

I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

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