Published: Thursday March 10, 2011 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 6, 2013 MYT 11:05:19 AM

Natural-born meaning has expanded

ACCORDING to the US constitution, anyone aspiring to become the country’s president must be a natural-born citizen of the US. There’s an Internet joke about someone expressing anger at this apparent discrimination against persons born by Caesarean operation. There is, of course, no such discrimination. At the time the US constitution was drafted, Caesarean births were probably very rare and it never entered the drafters’ minds that such an absurd interpretation could be given the term “natural born”.

I would like to seek your opinion on whether “natural born” is an appropriate and adequate description of the kind of US citizenship required for US presidential candidacy.

Why say “natural” at all if it does not serve a purpose (apart from providing the basis of the joke mentioned earlier)?

One would have thought something like “a person born in the United States or has become a citizen of the United States through naturalization” would be more apt and comprehensive. – I.Ho

A “natural-born” US citizen used to mean someone born in the US, as this quotation from the OED suggests:

“1876 Bancroft Hist. U.S. VI. xxvi. 27 Every one who first saw the light on the American soil was a natural-born American citizen.”

It was close in meaning to “native-born”, i.e. “Belonging to a particular place or country by birth.”, since a now obsolete meaning of “natural” was “a native of a place or country.” In fact, the OED definition of “naturalization” in the political sense is “The action of admitting an alien to the position and privileges of a native-born subject or citizen.”

Since then, the meaning of the term “natural-born” in the US has been expanded to include various categories of people born outside the US with at least one parent who is a citizen, as spelt out by Title 8 of the U.S. Code (see

“Natural-born citizens” are therefore differentiated from “naturalized citizens” who were immigrants and became citizens by operation of law.

I should think that since not all “natural-born citizens” of the US were born there, the term “citizens by birth” would be a more accurate term to use for them. I have seen “birthright citizens” also used as a term, but I prefer the relative simplicity of “citizens by birth”.

‘Ago’ refers to the past

1. In the sentence below, when the word “ago” is used, should “had injured” be changed to “injured”?

A year ago, another drunk driver had injured a friend of his when he knocked him off his motorbike.

Here’s another example:

A year earlier another drunk driver had injured a friend of his when he knocked him off his motorbike.

2. Is this sentence correct?

You make me can’t sleep! – Jason

1. Yes, because when we say “ago”, we are speaking about a past event in relation to the present. “A year ago” means a year before now. So, there is no need to use “had injured”, which is a past perfect tense of the verb “injure”. The sentence should therefore read:

“A year ago, another drunk driver injured a friend of his when he knocked him off his motorbike.”

We use “earlier” when we are speaking about a past event in relation to another past event, or a past situation or time. We also use the past perfect tense of a verb for the earlier event. Let me write a couple of sentences before your second sentence to give it a context:

“After getting into his workmate’s car, he realised that she was drunk. He persuaded her to let him take over the wheel, and gave her a stern lecture against drinking and driving. A year earlier another drunk driver had injured a friend of his when he knocked him off his motorbike.”

In the above passage, “a year earlier” means a year before he accepted a lift from his drunken workmate. The past perfect verb “had injured” can be used here to distinguish an earlier past event from a more recent one (the lift).

2. No, “You make me can’t sleep!” is not correct. You should say: “You make me unable to sleep.” But there are other ways of saying that, depending on the situation. You can say, for example: “You give me sleepless nights!”, or “I can’t sleep because of you!” or even “You give me insomnia!”

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