The Controversial Comma

by Christopher Paul on April 17, 2012

Never has there been a punctuation mark mired in such controversy. Take, for example, it’s use in the 2nd Amendment:

You can glimpse a reason for this codification — which emphasized consistency rather than sound — by looking at the opening of the Second Amendment of the Constitution (1789):

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.

There are three commas. The one after “state” would be used today; the one after “arms” would not; the one after “militia” is ambiguous; and all three have caused a world of hurt, confusion and argumentation over the last 223 years. As Adam Freedman wrote in this newspaper in 2007, a Federal District Court ruling invalidating the District of Columbia’s gun ban (subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court) held that “the second comma divides the amendment into two clauses: one ‘prefatory’ and the other ‘operative.’ On this reading, the bit about a well-regulated militia is just preliminary throat clearing; the framers don’t really get down to business until they start talking about ‘the right of the people … shall not be infringed.’” More generally, the funky comma protocol muddies the crucial link between the importance of militias and the right of people to bear arms.

All I know is if you don’t use the Oxford comma, you’re dead to me.

Via Daring Fireball

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