A 4th of July linguistic reflection

This is the 4th of July, Independence Day in America. It provides an opportunity to reflect on linguistic issues related to our Constitution and our laws. It is also a chance to reflect on the interaction of our personal, political, religious, and social lives in relation to our convictions.

The Second Amendment, which is the basis for the passionately held convictions of modern Americans regarding the right to own  guns and other weapons, is open to different interpretations.  At issue is whether the “right to bear arms” is granted to individuals or to governments at various levels to regulate as they see fit.  Until a recent court case, the right was granted to governments. It is now, for the first time, granted to individuals.

Much of the problem with the Second Amendment lies in the commas.  There were two original versions, one passed by Congress, another ratified by the States.

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.

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.

In the first version, the phrase between commas (a non-restrictive phrase, which is defined as a phrase which is not essential to the meaning of the sentence) can be lifted since it is surrounded by commas, leaving the sentence “A well regulated Militia the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  This doesn’t make sense, especially since the last comma falls between the subject (the right…Arms) and the verb (shall..infringed).  Since it doesn’t make sense to the modern ear, it requires interpretation. Historical linguists have written tomes about the difference between punctuation in the 18th century and today. It is interesting to read them and see how this aspect of language, like all others, evolves and changes.

In the second version, there is only a single comma after the introductory phrase (A well…State).  The core sentence is “The right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  That is clear, though it is qualified by the introductory phrase, and that qualification cannot be ignored.

I cannot twist either sentence into meaning that every individual can have as many weapons as he (or she) wants, but considering that in the United States today individuals can  purchase weapons, including military grade weapons (with a few restrictions), pretty much at will, people who agree with my interpretation are either in the minority or just out of power at the moment.  And this blog is not a political one, but a linguistic one, so feel free to draw your own conclusions.

At the very least, the 4th of July can alert us to the importance of writing our laws clearly and unambiguously.  As a teacher, you will hope that this same clarity transfers to your students’ writing.

This day can also inspire us to give a bit of thought to our individual definitions of such terms as “liberty,” “equality,” “the people,” “right,” and, in this case, “arms.”  Regarding the third term, “the people,” I have been wondering what the right of slaves should have been at the time the Constitution was written.  As a compromise between the North and the South, slaves were defined as 3/5ths of a man in the Constitution, so should they have had a right to 3/5ths the number of arms as a full “man?”

Exercise: Choose a concept, such as “freedom” or “equality” or “rights” to discuss with your class, choosing as specific a target as possible.   One example might be the “right” to smoke in public places, or the “right” to use insulting language, or to publish and own violent video games.  Ask your students to write their own definition of the word “right” in connection with the specific issue, and have them discuss in small groups.  Are their definitions based on religious, political, or other foundations? Have they been influenced by personal experiences or experiences of people close to them?  The group conclusions can be shared in a discussion.

2 Responses to “A 4th of July linguistic reflection”

  • Miss GOP says:

    Great examples and activity here! I’m just starting a unit on argument with my students and this would be a good way to start a discussion on some of these issues. Thanks!

    -Miss GOP

  • Bob says:

    Let’s try rephrasing the sentence using a different topic:

    “A well educated Electorate, being necessary to self-governance in a free State, the right of the people to keep and read Books, shall not be infringed.”

    Here’s an exercise — explain how to interpret this sentence as meaning: “only people who are registered to vote should have books.”

    Is it really that hard to “twist” this “sentence into meaning that every individual can have as many [books] as he (or she) wants”?

    I take no specific view on either side of the political debate for the 2nd amendment, but your bias is clearly influencing your ability to parse sentences.

    If you want to write a political blog to express your personal views, do so. But please don’t insult your readers by pretending this is about linguistics.

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