A Star-Spangled Challenge

Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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54 Responses

  1. krogerfoot says:


  2. bearing says:


    Simplifying from interrogative to declarative and removing modifiers and interjections:

    You can see what we hailed, whose stripes and stars were streaming o’er the ramparts we watched.Report

    • krogerfoot in reply to bearing says:

      We hailed the thing we watched over the ramparts. We didn’t watch the ramparts, unless we were expecting something to happen to them.

      You know, one of the reasons I chose my current residence was how handsome the ramparts were. I like to check out my ramparts while I walk my parapet.Report

  3. Doctor Jay says:

    Well the sense of the stanza is “the flag”. We watched the flag. But grammatically speaking, we watched the “broad stripes and bright stars” (which were gallantly streaming through the perilous fight).

    Though reading it again, I give some credit to the “ramparts” crowd. Did we watch “O’er the ramparts” or was the flag over “the ramparts we watched”. To me the first doesn’t connect to the broad stripes and bright stars which were gallantly streaming. So I prefer the second.Report

    • krogerfoot in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I’m thinking the relative pronoun “whose” is doing mostly the same work as “what” in this sentence/verse. “The flag” is the yet-unsaid referent—Can you see it? In the first rays of sunup? We were watching it (proudly) as the sun set last night, and there it still is, (gallantly) waving its stripes and stars (broad and bright, respectively).Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I cosign Doctor Jay’s answer. It’s the stripes and stars that are being watched. To me, it’s the “Gallantly streaming” bit which makes little grammatical sense.Report

      • krogerfoot in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The thing we watched had “stripes . . . and . . . stars which [as we watched, over the ramparts] were so gallantly streaming.”

        I had no July 4th holiday, so I can argue about this endlessly.Report

  4. krogerfoot says:

    Then again, I’m the guy—that guy—who sings the second verse at the ballgame, which (the verse does) makes it a little clearer:
    What is that which the breeze
    O’er the towering steep
    As it fitfully blows
    Half conceals, half discloses
    Now it catches the breeze (?)
    Of the morning’s first something
    Meow meow meow meow meow meow

  5. Nevermoor says:

    Poetry doesn’t need strict grammar rules. He’s watching the flag, which is explicit from context.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Nevermoor says:

      The flag is what’s being “seen.” Its stripes and stars are what was “watched” the night before.Report

    • Kim in reply to Nevermoor says:

      Poetry must make sense. “strict” grammar rules are only necessary where otherwise confusion would reign supreme.

      This is a pretty damn convoluted structure for a song — but don’t blame the author! He wrote it as a written poem.Report

  6. KenB says:

    Disagree with most people above — grammatically it has to be “ramparts”. “, o’er the ramparts we watched,” is a dependent clause answering the question “where”. Can you see whose broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming over the ramparts that we watched?

    To krogerfoot’s sarcastic comment, if you were worried about the enemy military force overcoming your fort’s defenses, you might find much more reason to watch the walls and barricades intently.Report

    • KenB in reply to KenB says:

      Actually, after thinking about this more and reading Kolohe’s response, I think the more precise answer is that the grammatical object is the implicit relative pronoun “that”, whose referent is “ramparts”.Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    Ramparts is the object of the preposition o’er (over).

    The un poetic sentence, shifted from interrogative to declarative is

    ‘Hey, we saw first thing in the morning, our flag – which we saluted an hour or so after sunset last night, and we watched flying with all its vexillogical glory over the fort walls during a heck of a battle.’

    Remember the point of view of the narrator is from a ship in the harbor.Report

  8. Stillwater says:

    I’m gonna go in a different direction: The term “watched” doesn’t mean “looked at or saw” – so the term’s object is neither the flag nor the “perilous fight” – but instead refers to the act of guarding, or manning a post, especially over night. (hehe)Report

    • El Muneco in reply to Stillwater says:

      The problem with this is that “we” are on a ship in the harbor, not o’er the ramparts.

      I’ve changed my mind, originally I thought it was “what”, but I’ve been convinced that “what” is connected with “see” and the stars and stripes with “watched”.Report

  9. Krogerfoot says:

    Now I’m just as convinced that Brandon and El Muñeco are right—we saw what we so proudly hailed, which had broad stripes and bright stars (and we watched the stripes and stars).
    I suppose we could have been watching the ramparts (certainly if we were guarding them), but the way the scene is set it seems more likely we watched something else going on over those ramparts.Report

    • notme in reply to Krogerfoot says:

      Remember the view of the speaker. Key was on a Brit ship watching them bombard the fort. He was looking over the ramparts to see if the flag was still flying.Report

  10. Brandon Berg says:

    Oh…I see it now: “O’er the ramparts (that) we watched.” This seems like the most natural parse. I’m defecting to the ramparts camp.Report

  11. krogerfoot says:

    I am stalwartly anti-ramparts here, unless the battle was in fact taking place on them. The point of the poem is that the fort withstood the bombardment all night—the rockets, the bursting-in-air bombs—and the flag was still flying. Thus, the ramparts were never breached by the British. The only things visible to the narrator before dawn were the explosions and rockets in the air, o’er the ramparts. The ramparts framed the action, but he wasn’t watching them, unless he could somehow see them but not see the flag flying over them.Report

    • KenB in reply to krogerfoot says:

      The thing is that you’re relying only on general thematic elements and ignoring the grammar. If you actually try to diagram the sentence, or put it into Chomsky Normal Form, or otherwise analyze the sentence structure, I think you’ll find that the sentence won’t parse any other way than with “ramparts” being watched.Report

      • krogerfoot in reply to KenB says:

        Crap, I flew to my keyboard to show how wrong you were, but now I think I sadly agree with the pro-ramparts faction.

        See and hailed both have “what” as their object, and stripes and stars is the subject of “were streaming.” If we watched the stripes and stars, we’d need another relative pronoun in there: which/that were so gallantly streaming.

        No, wait a dang minute. It was the perilous fight we watched. The stripes/stars were gallantly streaming through the fight we watched over the ramparts. Can we rule that out?Report

        • Kolohe in reply to krogerfoot says:

          Again, it can’t be ramparts, ramparts is the object of a preposition. At best, you might be able to say watched is an intransitive verb.

          The most indefensible justification of ramparts in American history was provided by the LAPD, but this thread is a strong second place.Report

          • krogerfoot in reply to Kolohe says:

            But you can watch over something, as was pointed out above, in the sense of guarding it. I really doubt that’s how it’s meant here.

            Something else I think I was wrong about: The narrator was indeed watching the flag during the battle, so it was visible due to the explosions and whatnot. The tense of “were so gallantly streaming” puts it before the narrative present, where we’re being asked whether we can see the flag still pluckily flapping away up there, over the ramparts.Report

          • KenB in reply to Kolohe says:

            See my comment from July 4, 2016 at 1:33 pm. There’s an elided relative pronoun [that] that’s the object. Compare to this:

            Who threw the ball over the fence I just painted?

            What’s the object of the verb “painted”? And (separate but related question) what was painted?Report

        • KenB in reply to krogerfoot says:

          If we watched the stripes and stars, we’d need another relative pronoun in there: which/that were so gallantly streaming.

          Plus, if there were another relative pronoun there then the independent clause would no longer have a predicate.

          It was the perilous fight we watched.

          hmm… maybe that could work? “Whose broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming through the perilous fight [that] we watched o’er the ramparts.” Seems plausible grammatically.Report

  12. Chris says:

    ” broad stripes and bright stars”Report

    • Chris in reply to Chris says:

      It’s pretty simple to see, as well (“obvious,” even), if you just reorder the words a bit:

      Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
      O’er the ramparts we watched,


      Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, we watched o’er the ramparts.

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Chris says:

        I think it’s ambiguous. You can do the same thing for “ramparts.”

        Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, were so gallantly streaming o’er the ramparts (that) we watched

        The parenthetical “that” is added for clarity, but is not required, and omitted fairly frequently in speech and writing: “The poem Francis Scott Key wrote”Report

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    Good discussion. Y’all covered most of the possibilities. Kudos to krogerfoot for suggesting the perilous fight. I thought for a while that was going to slip through; to to all of you for knowing what “ramparts” are, or at least having the good sense to look it up and avoid that pratfall. The only possibility I don’t see raised is that the stanza is ungrammatical: a bowl of verbal mush.

    This topic was first brought to my attention some years back over at Language Log. Take a look here and here. The second link gives Mark Liberman’s analysis. His answer: the ramparts. He is an actual linguist, so who am I to argue?

    For whatever it is worth, I think that on a purely syntactic level the text is ambiguous. We need to dive into semantics and pragmatics. There are four possibilities (not counting the verbal mush option):

    (1) the flag (a/k/a the “broad stripes and bright stars”)
    (2) the (perilous) fight
    (3) the null set: the verb is used in an intransitive sense
    (4) the ramparts

    (1) The flag. This is a very attractive option, seeing as how it is central to the whole thing. Francis Scott Key observed it at the twilight’s last gleaming, and wants to know if it will appear at the dawn’s early light. So it makes sense that he would be watching it during the night, illuminated by the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. Contra this, do we use the word “watch” for squinting in the dark trying to catch an intermittent sight of something? We might watch for something under these circumstances, but that is an intransitive use, and the word “for” isn’t present. It would strain the meaning of “watch” to have the flag as its object here.

    (2) The fight. This also is very attractive. It was my initial candidate, when I first came across this question. After all, if there is a fight, we dudes are going to stand around and watch it. There are two problems with this interpretation. First, the syntax is even more strained than in other readings. All else being equal, the object is going to be placed closer to rather than further away from the verb. But I am focusing here on the pragmatics. What is over the ramparts? Or, more precisely, what is over the ramparts from Key’s perspective. The flag certainly is. This presents no problems. But if it is the fight he is watching, this places the fight as being what is over the ramparts. This would be odd. The British ships are firing at the fort. The fort is firing back. Is the fight taking place over the ramparts? Certainly some of it is: those bombs bursting in air, for instance. These were fired for mortars. An air burst directly above the fort was the idea. But other parts aren’t. It is not impossible, but a bit odd to localize the fight to over the ramparts.

    (3) Instransitive “watch”. There are various intransitive senses, but they don’t work here. Had Key been in the fort on the ramparts, then it would make sense to say that he was watching, i.e. keeping watch. Where? Over the ramparts. But he was on a ship some six miles away. This won’t fly.

    (4) The ramparts. Why would he be watching the ramparts? Because they are what was visible. I am unable to find a photo of Fort McHenry from Key’s position. I suspect that the reason is that from that far away, there isn’t much to see. Take a look at this Google Maps shot. It is from about a thousand yards away, to the east and slightly north. The ramparts and that big-ass flag pole are what are visible. I suspect that the flag pole at the time was less impressive. In any case, the ramparts are the large stationary structure that would be most visible under poor lighting conditions.

    Or something different. Feel free to argue about this. Really, what interests me is how we have a perfectly familiar text that Americans typically memorized at an early age, yet what it actually says is so unclear. To top it off, hardly anyone notices, until it is pointed out to them.Report

    • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      It’s clearly supposed to be the flag. Watched there gives the impression, not of someone squinting, but of plenty of fire and brimstone everywhere, enough to see clearly enough to be proud.

      If you were talking about the fight (or, more properly, the american soldiers), you’d be talking about ON the ramparts, not over them. People “over the ramparts” are FALLING.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kim says:

        Plenty of fire and brimstone everywhere, sufficient to provide at least semi-consistent illumination, is inconsistent with early 19th century combat, at least on this scale. This was not the Battle of the Somme. For all that it stands prominently in the American national imagination, it was a handful of frigates taking potshots, and the fort taking potshots back.

        I also forget to note that the flag flown during the night was a small storm flag. It would scarcely have been visible from Key’s position in the daytime. They had a big-ass flag that they raised in the morning.

        As for the ramparts, there was no fighting on the ramparts, in the sense of close combat. It was all gunnery and rocketry from a distance. Had it come to fighting on the ramparts, it would have been game over for the Americans. But that was never in the cards. Part of what they were loath to teach us in school was the the bombardment of Fort McHenry was a diversion to distract the fort from a landing party in boats slipping past, which in turn was a diversion from the main assault force, which had landed further away and was marching on the east side of the city. In other words, the McHenry stuff was a diversion in support of a diversion. The British had no intention of storming the fort.Report

        • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          Consistency, at least with battle itself, is rarely something you see in poetry.
          Read the third verse, and know that we have conjoined our national anthem with braggaddicio of a remarkable level and degree.Report

    • KenB in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Thanks for posing the question — I was definitely in the category of “people who never gave it any thought”.

      Another argument for “ramparts” is that it best fits the order of the phrases. Other parses can work but they require more hand-waving in the direction of poetry not needing to follow the usual syntactic rules.Report

      • Kim in reply to KenB says:

        Prose need not follow the usual syntactic rules.
        The best books of grammar are “Grammar rules and when to break them.”
        Staying within the normal constraints most of the time allows spice to stand out more.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kim says:

          Yabbut, those usually are bullshit rules to begin with: stuff that does not in fact describe the English language, but someone thinks should. When linguists talk about rules of grammar, they mean a description of how the English language really is. Of course the rules, in this sense, vary with dialect and register, so something that is ungrammatical in one context might be unremarkable in another.

          In the case of poetry, particularly older poetry such as that under discussion, there is a lot of freedom to mix and match components in ways that one ordinarily would not in prose. That is what we see going on here.Report

        • KenB in reply to Kim says:

          I more or less agree with this comment in general, though it applies much more to poetry than prose. But I don’t think it helps us with our current problem — the syntax is already unusual, and it’s not going to stand out more if we take the reading that it’s the flag being watched.

          The “ramparts” reading lets us take “o’er the ramparts [that] we watched” just as it is, but the other two readings require us to take it as a reversal of the usual phrase structure — we would expect “[that] we watched o’er the ramparts”. And having the object be the flag makes the placement of “through the perilous fight” truly bizarre.Report

    • Joe Sal in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Are we assuming monocular, or no monocular?Report

  14. Anne says:

    Just a little humble brag here…
    I was fortunate enough to actually work on The Star Spangled Banner
    Pics to prove it ….if the link works


  15. Mickey says:

    Thanks for that! It’s just the answer I nedede.Report

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