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Grammarians Parse the Second Amendment

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court is expected to interpret the meaning of the Second Amendment, which says, "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." When it does, John McIntyre hopes that the justices keep in mind "the understanding of English grammar prevalent among the Latinate-minded Founders."

McIntyre speaks as one learned not in law but in language. He is a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun and author of the blog You Don't Say, where he writes about writing, grammar and usage. The Second Amendment's opening phrase, he argues, is an absolute, one that governs the rest of the sentence. "The right to bear arms therefore has a direct connection to the establishment of a militia," he says.

His interpretation finds an ally in Dennis Baron, the University of Illinois linguistics professor who writes the blog The Web of Language. Baron was one of several linguistics professors who filed an amicus brief in Heller. The brief argued that the "absolute construction" of the militia clause necessarily melds to it the second clause, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." This was the grammatical rule the framers would have understood, Baron argues, and while the Supreme Court may end up parsing the Second Amendment differently:

it risks calling down the wrath of Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, the royalist sympathizer Lindley Murray, and the rabid federalist Noah Webster, whose political opinions may have differed, but whose grammatical analysis informed the eighteenth century and the documents, like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that it generated.

Copy editor McIntyre concludes that, not being a lawyer, he is "unable to say whether this constitutional context grants residents of the District of Columbia a right to keep an arsenal of firearms under the bed." It will be interesting, nonetheless, "to see what the exponents on the court of Original Intent will make of all this."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 24, 2008 at 12:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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