First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

What the internet does to the mind is something of an eternal question. Here at The Atlantic, in fact, we pondered that question before the internet even existed. Back in 1945, in his prophetic essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush outlined how technology that mimics human logic and memory could transform “the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race”:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Bush didn’t think machines could ever replace human creativity, but he did hope they could make the process of having ideas more efficient. “Whenever logical processes of thought are employed,” he wrote, “there is opportunity for the machine.”

Fast-forward six decades, and search engines had claimed that opportunity, acting as a stand-in for memory and even for association. In his October 2006 piece “Artificial Intelligentsia,” James Fallows confronted the new reality:

If omnipresent retrieval of spot data means there’s less we have to remember, and if categorization systems do some of the first-stage thinking for us, what will happen to our brains?

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Last week, a reader who signed his email “J.” gave us a detailed critique of what he calls the “zombie rules” of grammar—the gripes against such things as split infinitives and dangling prepositions that “fuel ... people’s misconceptions (and their nervous cluelessness) about English.” This next reader, Chris, has a rebuttal from his experience as an ESL teacher:

I find that adhering to grammar rules, however zombified they may be, is important for me in teaching university students—the reason being that once they complete their studies, they will be on the job hunt, and their English abilities will be on trial. The likelihood that a future employer might be a follower of zombie rules to English grammar is quite high, so rather than that student be judged at the most crucial time for them, I attempt to nip it in the bud early if possible.

NB: In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten can DEFINITELY still be looked at as something other than a verb with the verb left or went having been elided. For example,

The croissants were left uneaten by the partygoers.

This seems to act more as an adjective disguised as an adverb, similar to hungry in “The children went hungry for three days.”

Just my tuppence.

Which brings us back to the so-called verb that started it all: In the context of this list from our newsletter’s “Verbs” section:

Walking Dead autopsied, croissants uneaten, scare machine terrifies, diva reigns Supreme

… can “croissants” be read as a passive verb, according  to J.’s argument? Or is it, as Ruby first pointed out, actually an adjective? Another reader, John Williamson, lays out his case in great detail:

Here are some considerations:

a. If we were to say this:

Sentence 1: The uneaten croissants were finally discarded.

we would see that the verbal structure in this sentence employs a passive form: “were discarded.” “The croissants” is the subject and “The uneaten croissants” is the SP (subject phrase).

Since an SP consists of a determiner (the), any number of adjectives, and some number of nouns, gerunds, etc., but not any embedded verb forms;  and since Sentence 1 already has a well-formed verb structure (“were discarded”); then the tentative conclusion is that in Sentence 1, uneaten is an adjective and not a verb form.

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David Frum is worried it will happen under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):

The SoundCloud audio version is here. And if you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen to it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s the audio version:

This reader really liked the piece:

I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.

This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.

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Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In this week’s Atlantic coverage, our writers explored how humans collide with nature, what scientists can learn from genealogy, the technology for spreading bad news, what Americans think about universal health care, the history of an overlooked space, and more.

Can you remember the key facts? Find the answers to this week’s questions in the articles linked above—or go ahead and test your memory now:

For more tricky questions and surprising facts, try last week’s quiz, and subscribe to our daily newsletter.

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Charles Dharapak / AP

On Monday, February 20, we’ll celebrate Presidents’ Day. So this week, we asked our Politics & Policy Daily readers: What U.S. president do you admire most—and why? We received dozens of thoughtful responses, but here are a few of our favorites.

For Dolores Oliver, the answer is George H. W. Bush. She admires his ability to “work beyond ideological barriers”:

First, Bush was willing to resist pressure to aggressively brag about the fall of the Soviet Union. This approach reminded me of Lincoln’s commitment to welcoming back the South after the Civil War. He worked hard to respond with humility and support to bring the former Soviet satellite countries into the international community and eventually Russia too. Had the West come out with a prideful, bellicose attitude, perhaps we would be far worse off in our relationship with Russia than we are currently.

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That’s the charge leveled by one reader, J., who responds to my grammar confession from earlier this week by advising me to “battle the misinformed pedantry of the peevers”—and points out a number of ways in which I’m guilty of misinformation myself. But first, two more readers offer their defenses for linguistic laxity.

Knox, a self-described “ambiguity ally,” says her attitude to English was shaped by growing up in a family of dyslexics:

In my younger years, I thought I had missed out on the family superpower. Today, we’ve come to terms with the differences: Acute writing skills are as much of a wieldable power as the extraordinary three-dimensional thinking that can make reading more difficult. But in the name of intellectual stimulation, debate around the importance of grammar and spelling still arises at the dinner table.

My youngest brother has a favorite defense; he likes to define “a word” with a sly smile and a hefty dose of side-eye. “Well. Don’t you know the definition of a word?” (He’ll pause for dramatic effect.) “According to the dictionary,” a stab at my English degree, “a word is a unit of language that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. The purpose of a word is not grammatical accuracy but a mode of conveying meaning. So, if you understood what I meant, then my mastery of language is intact.”

I’ll argue with him in the name of a good dinner debate, but truthfully I can't help but agree. The English language for me is less a network of rules and codes and more a tool for impact. However, the upshot here: It’s always the combination of the two—the codes and the meaning—that will craft the highest-impact message.

George takes a similarly laissez-faire approach:

Years of teaching both English and French as second languages has convinced me that when it comes to usage, the bottom line is getting the message across. All languages (except dead ones) are in a constant state of flux and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It may seem at times that a language is “deteriorating,” but those who are most knowledgeable about language know that no language has ever “deteriorated.” All languages evolve.

I love to quote—perhaps not totally accurately—the inimitable “Mr. Language Person” (Dave Barry of the Miami Herald—retired) who reported an overheard conversation between Eileen and her friend. Eileen was complaining about being unable to go to the church social for lack of a ride. Her friend replied: “Eileen, ’f I’d a know’d you’d a wanna went, I’d a see’d you’d a got to get to go!” This is 100 percent wrong grammatically, but the message comes across perfectly. Why correct it?

But another defense of what I’ve described as “rule-breaking” lies not in rejection of grammatical rules, but in a more precise interpretation. Here’s J., whose point-by point response to my post begins by unpacking Ruby’s critique of the Atlantic Daily verbs:

In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is indeed a verb—specifically a passive verb—not an adjective. A “croissant uneaten” is a croissant that no one has eaten. That is, the verbal sense is clearly intact.

Although it appears in many of the same syntactic positions as adjectives, uneaten does not meet most of the criteria for adjective-hood (an asterisk indicates that something is ungrammatical):

  • It is not gradable: *more uneaten, *most uneaten

  • It cannot be modified by words like too and very: *very uneaten croissants

  • It doesn’t work with a verb like become: *The croissants became uneaten.

To get a better sense of all of this, compare uneaten to a past participle that has clearly become an adjective, like embarrassed. To be sure, when we’re discussing past participles, the line between verb and adjective is sometimes hazy. All we can do is look at the evidence.


I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”

The past participle is one of the six forms that every lexical verb has. The title "Verbs" encompasses those six forms. Don’t let a few misinformed peevers cause you to change the name.

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Forgive me, dear readers: I have sinned against grammar and in thy sight, and, as I might have expected, you’ve caught me. I’m referring to the “Verbs” section of The Atlantic Daily newsletter, which includes a series of four links attached to four (hopefully) sonically pleasing predicates. For example, our February 7 edition:

Valentines vocalized, Earth’s surface visualized, mysteries mesmerize, Rosie rises up.

The problem is that they’re not always, technically speaking, verbs. As one reader, Ruby, explains:

With respect, the phrase “croissants uneaten” contains no verb. Rather, uneaten is a verbal, a verb form that acts as another part of speech. In the phrase “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is an adjective that describes croissants.

Michelle asks for “parallel structure, please”:

While I loved seeing the Verbs section reinstated, I was a tad dismayed when “add up” appeared alongside “unimpressed,” “soured,” and “swiped.”  As a former English teacher, I always impressed upon my students the importance of parallel structure to assist readers in following along, which is perhaps why I found the shift from past to present tense jarring: Why not “Press unimpressed, sugar scientists soured, identity swiped, figures added up”?  I realize there is a slight difference between the phrase “add up,” which connotes “making sense,” versus “added up,” which suggests “tallying.”  Perhaps you should have selected another example since the first three verb forms function as past passive participles (adjectives), while the last is definitely a verb.

And Joseph looks even closer: “Please note that ‘unimpressed’ is an adjective, not a verb.”

It’s true! It’s true! I throw myself upon your mercy. (Being also at the mercy of Merriam-Webster, I have verified that preposition.) But what’s a would-be wordplayer to do? The rules of grammar are many and rigid, the headline-pun options comparatively few. I reserve the right to rebel for rhythm’s sake. I must claim my freedom to conjugate! And, well, it’s the little things in life that keep us going, and on a grim news day something like “press unimpressed” can be too much fun to pass up.

Yea, though I walk in the shadow of stylebooks AP, MLA, and Chicago—though I am passionately pro-Oxford comma; though I get distressed by misplacement of hyphens; though indeed, I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”—I am only a writer and only human, and I persist in doubt.

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A West Virginia delegate wears a Trump sticker on his hard hat during the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 19, 2016. Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

(Editor’s note: Alana Semuels joined the TAD discussion group of Atlantic readers for an “Ask Me Anything,” and a lightly edited version of that Q&A is below. Reader questions are in bold, followed by replies from Semuels.)

Hi Alana. Welcome to TAD and thank you for being here. I live in the heart of the Rust Belt—Pittsburgh—and I was wondering what you see as the best hope for river towns like Aliquippa and Beaver Falls that were founded on steel but now barely scrape by. We are losing young people at a rate of  30 percent, I think. A couple towns have found a niche and have become viable, but I just don’t see many of these places recovering. Do you think they will inevitably eventually disappear like so many other towns in the Midwest?

I started my journalism career in Pittsburgh, at the Post-Gazette, so I have a special alliance to the region (except to the Steelers. Go Pats!). There are towns—like Goshen, Indiana—that have survived the rural exodus, mostly by specializing in a few niche industries. My article “America Is Still Making Things” talks a little more about this. But only a few towns are going to be able to pull this off. I think the rest are going to keep losing population and young people. There’s hope for them to become retirement communities, but that’s not necessarily the most dynamic economic engine.

As someone who really went around and talked to a lot of people from all corners of America, did you think Trump might win the election? Or were you as surprised as the rest of us?

No, I was surprised, too. I wish I had talked to more people about this before the election, but I, like many other journalists, was focused on other things.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the average Trump voter?

Democrats seem to think Trump voters are dumb; they aren’t. They just really don’t like Democrats, especially Hillary. A lot of the people I talked to said they were more anti-Hillary than they were pro-Trump. A friend who is a pollster said people in his groups thought Hillary was a liar and Trump an a-hole, and they’d rather vote for an a-hole than a liar.

I think a lot of people were long-time Republicans, and are as unlikely to change parties as urban Democrats are. But there was one woman who said to me she didn’t know who she was voting for until she got into the voting booth, and then she thought about the FBI and Hillary, and then voted for Trump. I think she is fairly representative.

It irritates me when Democrats criticize Rust Belt voters for supporting Trump. That’s the point of voting—everyone gets to choose who they want. Alexander Hamilton would have liked only the educated people to choose who was in charge, but that’s not a democracy.

Do you think sexism was a big factor in Midwest voters’ hate for Hillary?

No, I actually don’t. But I’m a business reporter, not a politics reporter, so I could be wrong.

Anne Kitzman / zhu difeng / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

What is the most surprising thing you learned while researching “America’s Great Divergence”?

Well the most surprising thing was when I was sitting at a pizza parlor talking to two young guys who said some really racist stuff (they didn’t like cities because they had too many black people, etc), which they knew was on the record. I think it really illuminated for me how different the two worlds are: What they were saying was perfectly fine to say in the world they lived in. In the world I live in, it was shocking.

Where is somewhere you’ve traveled that has really surprised you and changed how you think, either in a good way or a bad way?

Beaumont, Texas, was a fascinating place for me to visit. I had written a lot about segregation at that point, but it is often hard to articulate why segregation is so problematic (beyond general issues of equality and fairness). But I talked to a mother whose daughter had been succeeding in a good school in a white neighborhood, and then had to move to a bad school in a poor neighborhood. In the first school, her daughter had access to a computer, books, and an engaged teacher. In the second one, many of the kids in her class didn’t know how to read.

Based on what you’ve seen of America, do you consider it likely or unlikely that large-scale violent conflict breaks out between factions of Americans?

Hmm, I don’t think widespread violence is likely. One interesting thing I’ve noticed in trips since the election is how everyone is just going about their daily lives as before. Guys, the world has not ended (!!). If anything, people seem more politically engaged than ever.

One of the things I was most curious about after the election was who was going to be impacted first and soonest (apparently, the answer was immigrants from seven countries). But people live locally, and act locally, and will see little changed in their lives for now, I think.

    What do you think is the limit at which Trump’s support among rural voters collapses, if there even is one?

    I have thought about this a lot, and I think that the limit is a lot higher than Democrats would hope. I was in rural North Carolina last week talking to voters, and I was surprised how many of them—poor, rich, white, black—said they thought Trump was doing a good job. (This was in the midst of the immigration furor.) They said they thought he had a big mouth, and said things that he shouldn’t, but they wanted to give him a shot to turn the country around.

    Trump speaks during a campaign stop at Alumisource, a metals recycling facility in Monessen, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 2016. (Keith Srakocic / AP)

    I enjoyed your story “President Trump, Job Creator?” Do you think that Trump either knows or cares that companies are playing him by letting him claim credit for things that they were going to do anyway?

    I think he loves this. Announcements like Intel’s recent one about the chip factory in Arizona make him look good, even though he did nothing to make them happen. Intel, like most companies that make these announcements, had planned to do this long ago. By announcing it Trump’s way, though, they might be able to curry favor with him. I don’t think they’re playing him; I think he’s playing them.

    What do you think will be the long-term ramifications of Trump’s economic policies? Do you think these ramifications could have a major impact on how rural areas vote, or do you think values and religious concerns will still be supreme?

      Katie Martin / The Atlantic

      In this week’s Atlantic coverage, our writers explored women’s war on body hair, the threats to bumblebees’ survival, Americans’ financial instability, the new rhetoric of climate-change denial, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career advice, and more.

      Can you remember the key facts? Find the answers to this week’s questions in the articles linked above—or go ahead and test your memory now:

      For more tricky questions and surprising facts, try last week’s quiz, and subscribe to our daily newsletter.

      All notes on "Weekly Quiz" >
      Claudia Kilbourne Lux

      The poet Thomas Lux died on February 5. It seems fitting to honor him and his decades of Atlantic contributions with a brief history, but also with his own words in his own voice.

      Speaking about his craft in an Atlantic interview from 2004, Lux is both magpie of unusual facts (“Without the dung beetle we’d all be up to our clavicles in cow pies. They deserve an ode!”) and defender of poetry’s essential weirdness:

      I love mystery, strangeness, nuttiness, wildness, leaps across chasms, irreverence, all the crazy stuff we love about poetry. We don’t usually love poems because they are well made, or smart, or deep. We love them for their crazy hearts.

      In the nine poems Lux published in our pages, you’ll find wry humor—1984’s “Snake Lake” begins:

      My friends, I hope you will not swim here:
      this lake isn’t named for what it lacks.

      And you’ll find startling echoes of the present in “Henry Clay’s Mouth” (1999):

      He said: “Kissing is like the presidency,
      it is not to be sought and not to be declined.

      It was written, if women had the vote,
      he would have been President,
      kissing everyone in sight,
      dancing on tables (“a grand Terpsichorean
      performance ...”), kissing everyone,
      sometimes two at once, kissing everyone,
      the almost-President
      of our people.

      Years ago, as part of a series for poetry month, we gathered a selection of old Atlantic audio recordings of poets reading their works. My part was to convert the files from an obsolete, unplayable format to mp3. Among them was Lux’s reading of “Virgule,” an ode to “/” that begins:

      What I love about this little leaning mark
      is how it divides
      without divisiveness. The left
      or bottom side prying that choice up or out,
      the right or top side pressing down upon
      its choice: either/or,

      Listen to him read the entire poem:

      Far more qualified people can speak to his particular brilliance—I’m just someone who tried to rescue his voice, or a minute and 38 seconds of it, from the online abyss and deliver him to you.

      I asked my colleague David Barber, the Atlantic’s poetry editor, for his memories of the magazine’s long history with Lux. He writes:

      Tom Lux’s quirky, wily, incorrigibly uncanny poems left their mark far and wide from way back, but The Atlantic could be said to have a special claim on him.

      Sarah Zhang recently looked at a pathbreaking effort by James Feeney to expand the use of medical marijuana in the U.S. He’s surgeon in Connecticut conducting a clinical trial to compare the use of marijuana and opioids when it comes to treating acute pain, rather than chronic pain. Here’s Sarah:

      That distinction—acute pain from an injury—[is] an important one. A small body of evidence suggests that medical marijuana is effective for chronic pain, which persists even after an injury should have healed and for which opioids are already not a great treatment. But now Feeney wants to try medical marijuana for acute pain, where opioids have long been a go-to drug.

      That tendency to prescribe pills has fueled the opioid addiction crisis in the U.S., thus increasing the need for non-addictive alternatives like marijuana—now legal for medical use in 28 states and for recreational use in eight (plus D.C. for both). The rules for when doctors can prescribe pot to their patients vary state to state, but those rules rarely apply to acute, short-term pain. That’s exactly what the following reader experienced, and cannabis was a godsend for her:

      I had a bilateral mastectomy, then chemo, then radiation on both sides, since I had cancer in both breasts. It was a huge radiation field and a little over a third of the way through my skin was so badly burned that the two old soft-cotton tee shirts I wore to bed were stuck to my skin and bloody when I woke up in the morning. It was so bad that I had to stand in a warm shower for a long time to loosen the connection between my flesh and shirt to get it off.

      A friend brought me some THC-laced cookies and that solved the problem. No pain, as well as no anxiety. I nibbled on them for about three weeks. They were very strong and each cookie got me through several days. I stopped eating them when the pain went away, and I had a few left over that I didn’t use.

      This next reader, in contrast, has chronic pain, but he only uses cannabis for the short-term bursts of peak pain:

      I am a 53-year-old, college-educated white male working as a software engineer in the Silicon Valley since high school. I have been a recreational user of cannabis for most of my adult life, as I prefer it over alcohol—which I drink only when I can’t get cannabis.

      I have a chronic foot condition for which my doctor has prescribed OxyContin, as well as hydrocodone for peak pain. My use of Oxy has been consistent, but I was using the hydrocodone more than my doctor was happy with. Of course, once I was put on the opioids, I could no longer use alcohol.

      Two years ago I obtained a recommendation for medical cannabis and have been able to significantly reduce/eliminate my hydrocodone use by relying on cannabis for peak pain. I have no negative side effects and no longer have to worry about running out of pills.

      There are several things that surprised me about using cannabis as medicine:

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