If you’ve learned about the United States Constitution, you’ve probably seen the phrase “a more perfect union.” You might even wonder how something perfect can become more perfect. Did the writers of the Constitution use the correct phrase?
It is correct to say “a more perfect union” because “more perfect” expresses the opinion of those who wrote the constitution. But you wouldn’t say that you got a “more perfect grade” on your math test because “more perfect” means that all of your answers are correct in this instance, and you can’t have more than all of something.
Read on to understand more about the grammar of this unique and famous phrase from the U.S. Constitution.
What Does “A More Perfect Union” Mean?
The writers of the U.S. Constitution included the phrase “a more perfect union” to express their goal of establishing a country with a system of government as close to ideal as possible engaged in a cycle of continuous improvement.
In English, “perfect” has a few different meanings, so it is crucial that we understand which sense this phrase uses. We often use “perfect” to describe something without flaws, mistakes, or defects or something complete – beyond possible improvement. But this meaning of perfect does not make sense here for two reasons.
First, if “perfect” means “complete,” then nothing can make it more perfect. For example, if you collect coins and have a complete set of state quarters, you can’t add any quarters that would make your collection more complete.
Second, if “perfect” means “without fault,” there is no room for improvement. Also, we know that people are not perfect. So, since people make up countries and governments people, they also cannot be perfect.
So in “a more perfect union,” “perfect” uses its other common meaning, which is “ideal” or the best representation of something (source). In this meaning, it expresses the speaker’s opinion that something is very good, or the best of its kind, even if it cannot be completely flawless.
Of course, this meaning is subject to the opinion of the speaker. For example, if you like going to the beach, you might say that the “perfect day” is sunny and warm. But if I like to ski, I might describe a cold day with fresh snow as the “perfect day.”
How Do You Use “A More Perfect Union”?
The writers of the Constitution used “a more perfect union” to express their vision of an ideal form of government committed to constant improvement through an engaged citizenry and thriving democracy.
The preamble (introductory paragraph) to the Constitution says that the people establish it “in order to form a more perfect Union” (source). This phrase is famous and memorable because it invokes a response from the reader.
We understand from the context that “perfect” doesn’t mean complete in this instance. The writers are not suggesting that the Union consists of a complete set of states, like your quarter collection. They are saying they want as good a system of government as possible, and the Constitution describes how they plan to make it happen.
Since the United States already existed at the time but was operating under a different document (The Articles of Confederation), the writers couldn’t simply say they were forming a new Union.
They believed the Union was good in its then-current form but needed some improvement. So they carefully and cleverly chose words to make the reader understand their goal and feel their sentiment. The words “a more perfect union” encourage the reader to feel optimism and hope.
This was important since the States had to ratify the Constitution to establish it as the new governing document. So the writers chose words that encouraged the States to take something already good and make it even better.
When Can You Use “A More Perfect Union”?
The Constitution uses “a more perfect union” to describe the improvement of a quality described by the gradable adjective “perfect.”
Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. Adjectives that can have comparative or superlative forms are gradable. Non-gradable adjectives are absolute, meaning they cannot have comparative and superlative forms.
We will examine the difference between these two classes of adjectives in a moment. But, for now, note that when we reviewed the possible meanings of “perfect,” we saw that it could have either a gradable or a non-gradable sense.
So “a more perfect union” tells us that “perfect” cannot mean “flawless” or “complete” because this is the non-gradable definition of perfect. It can only mean that the writers hope to make the union closer to the ideal with fewer flaws.
Using “A More Perfect Union” in a Full Sentence
By examining the preamble of the Constitution, we see how “a more perfect union” interacts with the rest of the sentence.
The whole preamble to the U.S. Constitution is a single sentence:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
“A more perfect Union” is a direct object of the infinitive “to form.” It is part of a longer subordinate clause that begins with “in Order” and ends with “Posterity.” The whole clause describes the purpose for which “We the People” (the subject) “do ordain and establish” (verb) “this Constitution” (direct object).
The writers designed the sentence to convince readers that adopting the Constitution forms “a more perfect union” by achieving all of the preamble’s objectives.
When Not to Use “A More Perfect Union”
The writers could not have used “a more perfect union” with the non-gradable meaning of perfect, nor if the union did not already exist.
If perfect means “complete” or “flawless,” you cannot modify it with “more,” as we discussed above.
Also, “a more perfect union” implies that a “perfect union” already exists and that the objective is to improve on its perfection. So if the States were not already united, the writers would have simply sought to form a union or even a perfect union. But it couldn’t be “a more perfect union” since “more” requires something to compare (source).
What Can You Use Instead of “A More Perfect Union”?
Below are other phrases that the writers of the Constitution could have used to express the meaning of “a more perfect union.”
The writers could have proposed the Constitution to:
- Improve the union
- Strengthen the union
- Modify our system of government
Any one of these statements could have fit in the preamble to the Constitution. However, the writers chose a phrase that invoked a stronger emotional response from the reader than these other choices would have done.
Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
Comparative adjectives describe differences between the things they modify. Including “a more perfect union” in the Constitution demonstrates one use of a comparative adjective.
To modify most single-syllable adjectives, add “-er” to the end to form a comparative or “-est” to form a superlative. To modify most multi-syllable adjectives, you add an adverb like “more” or “less” before the word to create a comparative, or terms such as “most” or “fewest” to form a superlative.
“More perfect” is the grammatically correct comparative form of “perfect.” The use of the comparative form shows that the writers of the Constitution used the gradable definition of “perfect.”
You can learn more about comparatives by reading our article Is It Correct to Say “More Better”?
Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives
Some adjectives are gradable, meaning they can be more or less of the quality they describe. Other adjectives are non-gradable (or absolute), which means you cannot change their degree or magnitude with adverbs like “fewer” or “more.”
- My sister is tall. (adjective)
- My sister is taller than me. (comparative)
- My sister is the tallest in my family. (superlative)
“Tall” is a gradable adjective because you can use comparatives and superlatives to describe how tall someone or something is in relation to something else.
- Dinosaurs are extinct.
- My homework is finished.
The adjectives in these sentences are absolute; you cannot make them more or less and still have a meaningful sentence.
You can’t say that mammoths are more extinct than dinosaurs. And if you discover a live dinosaur, that doesn’t mean that dinosaurs are less extinct; they are not extinct.
Doing more homework won’t make your homework more finished. And skipping a task means your homework remains unfinished.
Adverbs Seemingly Expressing Degree
Also, you will sometimes encounter adverbs seemingly expressing varying degrees of an absolute (non-gradable) adjective.
Here are some examples:
- The refrigerator is completely empty.
- My homework is totally finished.
Grammatically, the refrigerator either contains food or doesn’t, and your homework is only finished when every task is complete. So when we modify these non-gradable adjectives, we usually mean expressing an emotion about or reacting to the absolute state.
When you describe the refrigerator as “completely empty,” the reader knows you were hungry when you checked. When your homework is “completely finished,” the reader believes you had a lot of homework that took a long time to complete.
These adverbs convey meaning, but they are not comparatives or superlatives. You can only use comparatives and superlatives with gradable adjectives. This is how we understand the proper meaning of “perfect” in “a more perfect union.”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To read more about adverbs that express quality, read this article: Is It Correct to Say “Much More”?
“A more perfect union” is a grammatically correct phrase that describes movement toward an ideal. It has become a memorable and recognizable piece of American history because the writers of the U.S. Constitution carefully chose these words to influence their readers and produce results.