Guns and grammar: punctuation doesn ’t make me aning, people do.
debaron at UIUC.EDU
Wed Mar 14 05:02:43 UTC 2007
There's a new post on the Web of Language: Guns and grammar:
punctuation doesn’t make meaning, people do.
Citing the second comma of the Second Amendment, the District of
Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that D.C. residents may
now keep guns that are loaded, unlocked, and ready to shoot in their
homes. Plaintiffs in the case were challenging the District’s
firearm laws, which require guns in the home to be unloaded and
either broken down or disabled by a trigger lock....
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “A well
regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,
the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be
infringed.” ... Its highly-contested language contains three commas.
The D.C. Circuit Court has found that “The provision’s second comma
divides the Amendment into two clauses; the first is prefatory, and
the second operative.” The Court then focuses on the “operative”
clause, not the “prefatory” one, whose importance it dismisses as not
central to the amendment.. . .
The D. C. Court’s opinion in a case seriously weakening gun control
turns in part on the meaning of a comma. But punctuation is a
stylistic practice that is often inconsistent, changing significantly
over the centuries, so strict constructionists like the majority on
the Court of Appeals might do better to interpret the Amendment not
based on what they learned about commas in college, but on what the
framers of the Constitution actually knew about 18th-century comma
Lowth tells us that “the doctrine of punctuation must needs be very
imperfect,” adding that it has few precise rules and many
exceptions. ... If the Supreme Court reviews the decision of the D.C.
Circuit, it may well wonder why the lower court placed so much weight
on one comma in the Amendment, while completely ignoring the other
It’s unwise – or perhaps just careless – to suppress such evidence,
if you’re arguing, as the Court does, that commas are vital to
interpretation. In fact, the Second Amendment has three commas: the
first and third signal pauses, and as Murray shows, the second tells
us that the second clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear
Arms, shall not be infringed,” is the logical result of the clause
that precedes it, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the
security of a free State.”
Read the whole post on the Web of Language
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