Jan 18, 2013

Comma Chameleon

(posted by killre)

"The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun." --Mike Love
Okay, I'll say it: The founding fathers were sloppy writers.

Yes, it was originally my intent to tackle what can be called the "comma issue" inherent in the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  For those who are unfamiliar, most versions of the Second Amendment --yeah, I said, "versions of the Second Amendment," a grouping of words that should already give you pause-- most versions of the Second Amendment you see in print contain three commas.  That's at least one too many and arguably two too many.  I was going to tackle it, but like a mildly concussed cornerback I've chosen a different angle.  I no longer seek to tackle; I am content to run the issue out of bounds.

More on that in a moment.  First, let's return to my opening blaspheme: The founding fathers were sloppy writers.  Don't get me wrong. I freely acknowledge the task of composing, editing and polishing was far more difficult in the days of parchment and quill than now, with our souped-up word processing programs.  Moreover, I fully recognize that even the best-educated of the founders was essentially self-educated, owing to their era's lack of universal standards in higher learning... and by higher I mean, like, beyond the sixth grade.  However, even in those long ago, halcyon days of the late eighteenth century, the concept of "one more draft" wasn't exactly a technological advancement the founders could not have foreseen, nor were the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and capitalization closely guarded secrets of the illuminati.
Now to those who would say substance (what is said or written) matters far more than style (how it is said or written), I would retort, "Au contraire," which is a stylin' French phrase that translates roughly to, "Shut up, you stupid-head."  While the relationship between style and substance cannot truly be described as symbiotic, it is one that is intricately intertwined.  Style influences substance, shades it, texturizes it, enhances it when done well and detracts from it when not.  Often enough, and sometimes on a level neither the reader nor the writer are fully aware of, style effects substance to the point of mutating it.

I cite the opening lyric to the chorus of a song by Tim Cavanaugh...

How it is written: "I want to kiss her, but she won't let me."
How it is uttered: "I wanna kiss her butt. She won't let me."
Similar messages overall, yet decidedly different in detail.
The framers of the Constitution did grasp, to some extent, the notion that style is a component of substance.  Alas, their grasp was at times disappointing and at others almost shocking it its frailty.  For example, I love that they skirted the accepted rules and capitalized the word People in the document's preamble.  I wish they had been more consistant and done so throughout.  They didn't.  Conversely, they got so carried away in some instances (just in the same preamble they capitalize the words order, tranquility, welfare and blessings) that the style becomes dizzyingly chaotic and I find myself again concluding: The founding fathers were sloppy writers.  So I was going to fire up a chain saw and perform a delicate disection of the comma issue.

Why, you ask?  A fair question.  Too bad my answer is anything but.

Based on what I have encountered in my random and idle perusals of numerous other sites on this here internet thingy, there's a 98.6% chance that I'm better qualified to dissertate the proper use of commas than you are. And as long as I'm transmuting abstract educated guesses into poorly poured concrete numerals, let me also state that at this moment 42.4% of you think you are part of the previous sentence's remaining 1.4%.  I will let you decide for yourself whether you'd rather contemplate the bald mathematics of that statement, or the wavy and lustrous socio-econo-political metaphor half-buried within.

Take your time.  I'm about to digress anyway.

While I'm in the neighborhood of punctuation, allow me to render this rant...

This  -  is a hyphen.
This  --  is a dash, or what passes for one when your keyboard lacks a dash and/or your word processing program fails to recognize you're trying to dish a dash.  While the two marks share some cosmetic traits --both are horizontal lines elevated to approximately half the height of the average character-- there are differences, too.  For example, one of them is 130% longer than the other.  They also serve entirely different functions in making the written word more readily accessable to the reader.  If you want to use short cuts when twitting (yeah, said it that way on purpose) or texting, that's your business.  If, however, you are writing an article or essay for general consumption, you need to (a) know the differences and (b) employ them properly.  Otherwise, you're a hack.

I keep repeating that I was going to tackle the comma issue.  Past tense.  You might wonder why I changed my mind...

4. Length.  As is, this piece is going to have to come in several installments.

3. It was to have been about half tongue-in-cheek anyway-- an amusing analogy ranging from extreme liberals wanting to rid the Second Amendment of any and all commas to extreme conservatives insisting that the only real solution is for every word to carry a comma on its hip.

2. While skimming my copy of Rip Van Winkle recently (to settle a bet), I couldn't help noticing how drunkenly comma-happy Washington Irving was.  The publishing date of Winkle, 1819, was not all that far removed from the year the Bill of Rights (which form demands I point out the Second Amendment is a part) was composed, 1789.  Further research led me to the following conclusion: The founding fathers were sloppy writers, but no sloppier than anyone else in their era.

1. Like a clutch hitter, somebody got it right when it really counted.  Most reprintings of the Second Amendment are copied from the version in the National Archives.  That version has three commas.  That is not, however, the OFFICIAL version.  The official version of the Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, certified, and filed for posterity... resides in the Library of Congress.  It has one comma.

Here then is the official version, rendered character-for-character:


Art. II. 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.

If we are going to debate the Second Amendment, this is the version we should be discussing.

(more to come)

P.S.... Bud "De Devil Is In De Tails" Selig must go.


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