Sunday, December 16, 2007

weekly writing coach: guns for commas

The next time you insert a comma or two in a sentence, will it take the Supreme Court to figure it out? That's what Adam Freedman wonders in a New York Times op-ed article on the forthcoming decision on the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, the first Supreme Court case to consider the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights in nearly 70 years. The author of The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese, Freedman notes that:
...little is known about the justices' views on the lethal device at the center of the controversy: the comma...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 op-ed is titled....wait for it..."Clause and Effect." It notes that previous Second Amendment cases have called the commas in question "unusual," but Freedman explains:
In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific. Commas and other marks evolved from a variety of symbols meant to denote pauses in speaking. For centuries, punctuation was as chaotic as individual speech patterns.
He recommends taking away all the commas to see the sentence's grammar; in Freedman's view, what's visible then is a causal link between militias and the right to bear arms. His op-ed walks you through that rationale, and you can fall back on this guide to comma usage from the Online Writing Lab of Purdue University if your commas are becoming, well, fodder for a legal case.

Buy The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese

1 comment:

Guy Hogan said...

Punctuation evolves as it should. Writing, words and spelling evolve because ideas evolve. It's all good.