Guns and grammar: punctuation doesn ’t make me aning, people do.

Dennis Baron 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  
two. ....

  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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