Mighty Red Pen

December 16, 2007

The comma war

Filed under: Perilous punctuation — mighty red pen @ 4:02 pm

Thanks to Gopher, who sent this really interesting article, “Clause and Effect,” an op-ed by Adam Freedman. Wow!

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to consider District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down Washington’s strict gun ordinance as a violation of the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.”

This will be the first time in nearly 70 years that the court has considered the Second Amendment. The outcome of the case is difficult to handicap, mainly because so little is known about the justices’ views on the lethal device at the center of the controversy: the comma. That’s right, the “small crooked point,” as Richard Mulcaster described this punctuation upstart in 1582. The official version of the Second Amendment has three of the little blighters:

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.

The decision invalidating the district’s gun ban, written by Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, cites the second comma (the one after “state”) as proof that the Second Amendment does not merely protect the “collective” right of states to maintain their militias, but endows each citizen with an “individual” right to carry a gun, regardless of membership in the local militia.

How does a mere comma do that?

MRP asks that question all the time. Here’s another outtake,

Refreshing though it is to see punctuation at the center of a national debate, there could scarcely be a worse place to search for the framers’ original intent than their use of commas. In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific.

I know you’re dying to read more, so here’s the astonishing conclusion.

1 Comment »

  1. I find it interesting that this has come down to a question of grammar.

    Comment by Blue — December 18, 2007 @ 11:44 am | Reply


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