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Element Order and the Grammar of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution 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.” Gun owners assert a right to own and use firearms on the basis of the main clause of the amendment. In the so-called Heller case, the United States Supreme Court has sustained their right, ignoring in 2007 the well-reasoned amicus brief filed by professional linguists that argued that the grammar of the amendment does not allow such an interpretation. Here is a summary (from Dennis Baron, “Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment” (www.english.illinois.edu/-people/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf):

“In our amicus brief in the Heller case we attempted to demonstrate,
• that the Second Amendment must be read in its entirety, and that its initial
absolute functions as a subordinate adverbial that establishes a cause-and-effect
connection with the amendment’s main clause;
• that the vast preponderance of examples show that the phrase bear arms refers
specifically to carrying weapons in the context of a well-regulated militia;
• that the word militia itself refers to a federally-authorized, collective fighting
force, drawn only from the subgroup of citizens eligible for service in such a
body;
• and that as the linguistic evidence makes clear, the militia clause is inextricably
bound to the right to bear arms clause.
18th-century readers, grammarians, and lexicographers understood the Second
Amendment in this way, and it is how linguists have understood it as well.”

What is paramount in the correct interpretation is something Baron et al. do not discuss, namely the order of the two clauses. The participial first clause, even in 18th-century English, could just as well have been placed second, in a familiar pattern that can be seen, for instance, in a sentence like: “There will be no swimming today at the recreation center, the pool being closed on Mondays.” Clearly, there is a cause-and-effect relation between the fact of no swimming and the particular day of the week, regardless of the placement of the two clauses vis-à-vis each other, but what  is at stake here is a form of grammatical government that is best captured by their ORDER, which is to say their HIERARCHICAL relationship. The first clause occurs where it does because the writer/utterer deems it to be MORE IMPORTANT than the second clause.

The same obtains in the element order of the Second Amendment. The word militia of the first clause governs––is hierarchically superordinate to––the phrase the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The framers of the Constitution had the grammatical option to invert the two clauses but did not. The element order speaks for itself, rendering militia the pragmatistic scope (i. e., in the Peircean sense of the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism) under which right to keep and bear arms is restricted.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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