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  • Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people; throwing out DC gun law, Scalia finds that linguists are mad hatters living on the other side of the looking glass

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ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jun 30, 2008 10:05 am

 

Excerpt from notes I'm writing for students at LSU.

 

Should Everyone Have Hir Own Gun?

A final note on politics, grammar, and clear writing: If you want to see and discuss the damage that poor writing can do, look at the Second Amendment:

 

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.”

 

You might try in your class to interpret precisely what that sentence means. A good way to approach this discussion would be to examine the effects of commas (whether they should or shouldn’t be there and how the meaning changes as a consequence of their presence and absence) and conjunctions (like “and”). Another good way to interpret the second amendment is to research the historical events and discussions in the Congress that led to it (e.g.: a militia verses a standing army). It’s also worth noting that people of different political persuasions cite different versions of the Second Amendment, casually deleting commas to prove their points.

 

You might consider in your class how the meaning would be changed if the writers had said one of the following:

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 

or

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of each person to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

 

The founding mothers and fathers who wrote the second amendment clearly could have improved their writing J. Think of the arguments and occasional acts of violence this ambiguity has provoked. If they had just written what they meant, everyone could have gone happily off to dinner.

Reply to ipeckh1@lsu.edu at 10:05 am
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jun 30, 2008 3:48 pm

Ok: I'll add a third: 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. 

they would consider a noun phrase an absolute (A well-regulated Militia)?  And was it 18th century common pracitce to place commas between rather simple subjects (the right of the people to keep and bear arms) and verbs?  "A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State" would seem like a comfortable absolute hardly needing a pause for breath--or did they all speak like George Bush:  I think that everyone pause pause pause understands pause pause that the pause Weapons of Mass Desctruction pause pause are now in Syria.

I noted in one document that the secretary changed a structure (I don't have it at hand--should be doing other things) composed by the framers Independent Clause; but Independent Clause to Independent Clause, but Independent Clause  [that was in one of the earlier statements proposed for the 2nd Amend.

Reply to ipeckh1@lsu.edu at 3:48 pm
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jul 1, 2008 7:05 am

I have just glanced at the Decl of Ind and Jefferson's version to get a scan of punctuation patterns. They look quite modern to me, the primary difference (this was just a scan) being the use of commas between coordinated phrases, whereas mondern convention tends to restrict them to coordinated clauses.  Inserting a comma between a noun and the modifying participle in an absolute after only three words would seem odd--unless one could find many other instances of good writers who followed the same construction.  I admit that it seems equally odd that one could infringe a Militia.  It seems as if "rights" of the Militia is a suppressed subject.  I enjoyed, at any rate, reading your brief.  Great work.

Reply to ipeckh1@lsu.edu at 7:05 am
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jul 3, 2008 9:51 am

I keep thinking about this:

 

 

“Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

 

or

 

“The right of a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State and to the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

 

or

 

“The right of a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of each person--including women, indentured servants, and slaves--to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” 

Reply to ipeckh1@lsu.edu at 9:51 am
SamuelRiv@gmail.com Aug 6, 2008 8:06 pm

Or how about, "Since arms were a lot different back in our day, what with muzzle-loaders and smoky powders, a steak knife was more effective for committing a crime; we need proper weaponry to keep us safe from tyranny, so don't take our guns!"

But I guess an amicus filed by a military historian would have had Scalia citing the oft-forgotten "Ye Olde Uzi Sub-machine-gunne" as contemporary arms for the time, also.

Popular physics is in a pretty rotten state thanks to misguided bestsellers from string theorists (*cough*Hawking=idiot*cough*), and judging from the previous posts, people have really missed the point of linguistics, too. While I admire your efforts for the good of the country, such analyses may in the end only weaken the cause of scientific literacy.

Reply to SamuelRiv@gmail.com at 8:06 pm