Grammar and the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, reverence and respect for which are inversely proportional to its readership, is not an elegant document. Unlike the King James Version of the bible (another document more respected than read), the Constitution displays very little eloquence, elegance, or poetry. It is a plodding, prosaic document whose language often betrays its contentious, compromise-laden creation process.

The Body of the Constitution

Needless to say, the Constitution is riddled with passive constructions, the majority of them with unexpressed agents. Once we get past the comparatively eloquent—and active-voiced—preamble (We the People of the United States…), we find ourselves immersed in a sea of passivity.

Article I, section 1. All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives….[We’ll Return to Article I later.]

Article 2, section 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows:…

Article 3, section 1. The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish….

You get the picture. Now, the main body of the Constitution is no longer entirely in effect; the states and legislatures have introduced and passed 27 amendments to the original articles (so far), which have altered and updated the original document as times have changed and U.S. citizens have had the opportunity to reconsider many original provisions. The first ten of these amendments are called The Bill of Rights. These are among the most important, and controversial, documents in American government and politics.

The Bill of Rights

The amendment process began almost concurrently with the composition of the original document. The first ten amendments were part of the package agreed upon by the Framers that was submitted for ratification by the first Congress assembled after the adoption of the new Constitution. It was the intent of the Framers to specify the key rights that citizens of the new nation were entitled to possess.

Unfortunately, the amendment writers were no more gifted as writers than the original bunch. Some of our amendments are models of confusion. Consider, for example, the well known First Amendment, which contains exactly one sentence—but what a sentence!

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We are so used to quoting snippets from this amendment that we do not often notice how muddled the English is. The most that can be said of this lead-off sentence is that it is written in the active voice; beyond that, we sense that it forbids Congress from trampling on certain individual rights. However, the message of the amendment is obscured and diluted because the grammar of the sentence is convoluted. Let’s take a close look.

The sentence begins simply enough with a subject–verb–direct object, plus a negating adjective:

 Congress shall make no law

but after word number 5 the sentence devolves into a morass of seemingly random constructions and murky syntax. Three participles are followed by a gaggle of prepositional phrases and a couple of infinitives. By the time we get to “or the right,” we have pretty much lost our way. Where does this phrase come from, and to what does it relate? The final straw is “and to petition”; this seems like an afterthought.

Just try to diagram this sentence. I did, and it nearly cost me my sanity.

Here is my version. I had to distort the normal shape of a diagrammed sentence just to fit this sentence’s 45 words and convoluted structure onto the printed page. 

First Amendment

It is only by diagramming this awkward sentence that I managed to unravel its underlying syntax, which in turn revealed its meaning and logic. Through the diagram, we can see that the entire tail of the sentence is based on a set of three participial phrases that modify the noun law (respecting, prohibiting, and abridging), each with a direct object of its own. Furthermore, one of the participles (abridging) sports a compound direct object (the nouns freedom and right). And the final direct object (right) is followed by a prepositional phrase (of the people) modified by two infinitive phrases (to assemble and to petition).The coda of this symphony consists of a prepositional phrase (of grievances) within a prepositional phrase (for a redress). Whew!

Another problem with this problematic sentence is that the antique punctuation gives misleading clues as to what phrase belongs with which idea. For example, it is only by diagramming the sentence that we can see that or the right grammatically depends on the participle abridging.

Now, I thump no bibles, but I have to admit that, compared to this amendment, Thou shalt not kill is admirably direct.

Amendments or Improvements?

Sometimes the relationship between the original Constitution and the amendments is one of improvement: An amendment corrects an untenable idea in the Constitution while simultaneously clarifying its language.

Let’s return to another part of the very first article of the original Constitution, first quoted above. This article famously includes a notoriously callous calculation of the value—using a wealth of passive constructions—of the life of each slave for purposes of representation and taxation:

Article I, section 2. …Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Much later, the Thirteenth Amendment rendered this loathsome calculation null and void by making slavery illegal—and at the same time, it upgraded the language to a comparatively direct statement, with only one passive construction buried in a relative clause within a prepositional phrase. Remove the interpolation, as I have done by striking it through below, and you get a very straightforward sentence:

Amendment XIII, section 1.  Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place under their jurisdiction.

Similarly, the language of the next amendment, Amendment XIV, which extended citizenship to persons in the United States, is not only clear, but uncharacteristically devoid of passive constructions:

Amendment XIV, section 1.  All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Perhaps the committees of politicians working on these two amendments received, consciously or otherwise, some subtle guidance from the president himself, a man named Lincoln who was known to turn a good phrase from time to time.

The language of the amendments, then, is in general no better than that penned by the original Framers, but sometimes it represents an attempt to redress a wrong that became apparent only after the passage of time.

The Worst Amendment of All?

Let me take one final example of poor language by the hallowed Framers of the Constitution (they are always spoken of with capital letters). This instance consists of a sentence that is not only grammatically abominable, but has generated a hellish controversy that plagues us today as citizens. It continues to bedevil the Supreme Court, which is stuck with the job of interpreting it. This is the Second Amendment.

Amendment 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.

Problem 1: Apparently unrelated parts. There are at least two grammatical problems with this amendment. The first is that the sentence contains two grammatically unlinked parts. The “sentence” contains 27 words, but the first 13 words have an ambiguous syntactical relationship with the last 14. The consequence of this is that there is no clear logical relationship between the two parts of the sentence.

Here is how the sentence has to be diagrammed:

 Second Amendment Part 1

 Second Amendment Part 2

Note the gap between the top half of the diagram and the bottom half. Grammatically, what we have in the first part of the sentence is an absolute construction, which is modeled on a Latin construction called the ablative absolute. An absolute construction is unrelated grammatically to the rest of a sentence; its link to the rest of the sentence is more holistic—it is supposed to modify the entire thought contained in the sentence.

Unfortunately, the holistic link in this case is itself not at all clear, with the result that the interpretation of the entire amendment is hopelessly muddled. The issue of who possesses the uninfringeable right to keep and bear arms—the militia? the states that muster militias? the people in well-regulated militias? the people in general?—is left unclear because of the presence of the absolute.

Absolute constructions are rare today, and are generally frowned on by grammarians, but they were more common in the 18th century, when the second amendment was composed. Still, this particular example is a singularly muddled construction, and the interpreters of the Constitution have been laboring under its ineptitude since the day it was penned.

Problem 2: A passive without an agent. The second most damaging flaw in the amendment is that the main clause of the sentence is in the passive voice—and the agent of the predicate (shall not be infringed) is not expressed.

Perhaps the Framers meant that no State could infringe the individual right to bear arms, or that the United States as a whole could not infringe it. Their passive construction represents a missed opportunity to be clear (or an intentional opportunity to be unclear). All that appears to be manifestly clear is the existence of some kind of non-infringeable right.

The grammar of today. Today, a participial construction, such as being necessary to the security of the State, would be attached to a noun that it is a grammatical part of a sentence—usually the subject. In such a construction, the participle would usually be placed next to the noun it modifies. If the Framers had done this, the amendment would be different—clearer, but different. Here are a couple of possible constructions.

Interpretation 1: A tight construction. For example, the second amendment participial construction today might be part of this sentence, in which the right to bear arms is severely restricted to militias:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of the State, shall have the right to store and provide arms to its members in the event of need, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

Interpretation 2: A loose construction. However, if we simply ignore the first part of the amendment, as many of today’s interpreters wish us to do, the second part clearly seems to vest the right to keep and bear arms in the people. In this part, the Framers seem to state that people—not just States or militias—have the right to keep and bear arms, and that this right is not to be infringed.

Under this sort of interpretation, the amendment might have been worded like this:

All citizens of the United States shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

To limit or to explain? But if this is what the Framers wanted—if they had wanted to cede the right to bear arms to all persons, regardless of membership in a militia—why mention the militia at all? The presence of the first 13 words, that damn absolute construction, must have had a purpose in the minds of the Framers. The mention of the militia must have been meant either to explain or to limit the individual ownership right stated in the second part of the amendment.

Limiting. If the purpose was to limit the individual ownership right, perhaps this would be a better wording for the second amendment:

All citizens of the United States who are members of a well regulated militia shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

Explaining. But if the purpose was to explain the individual ownership right, perhaps this would be a better wording:

Because States need well regulated militias, their citizens shall have the right to keep and bear arms, which shall be placed at the service of those militias upon need established by the States or the United States as a whole. The right of individuals to keep and bear arms for this or other purposes shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

Conclusion

Quite simply, we do not know what the Framers intended. In fact, what is codified in this ambiguous amendment may well be the Framers’ own ambiguity. It seems pretty clear to me that the second amendment is not the product of consensus among the Framers.

And we are stuck with their dithering.

The Parts of Speech

Traditionally, grammarians recognize eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

It is important to note first that these terms refer not to qualities of particular words in isolation, but to the functions that words and phrases play in particular sentences. No word by itself is a part of speech; a word (or phrase) becomes a part of speech only when it is used in a sentence, and its use in the sentence determines which part of speech it is.

Let’s therefore define a part of speech as follows.

A part of speech is the function that a word or phrase serves in a sentence.

A particular word or phrase functions in a sentence as a noun, verb, adjective, and so on; many English words serve different functions in different sentences.

Shifting parts of speech. Let’s look at some examples of how a given word can function differently—as a different part of speech—in different sentences.

Consider the word word itself. In most sentences, word will function as a noun, defined classically as “a word that designates a person, place, or thing.” The word word has functioned as a noun in the instances in which it has appeared in the preceding paragraphs. It will almost certainly function as a noun in most of the sentences in which it appears subsequently. This is because it usually functions as a noun.

However, it is not safe to call the word word a noun and leave it at that. Take a look at these sentences:

  1. I am not sure how to word my refusal to take part in the ceremony planned for this afternoon.
  2. You have to be very careful about word choice in the sentences you write for different audiences.

In the first of these sentences, word functions as a verb—it describes an action. The writer is discussing the action of putting something into words. In the second sentence, word functions as an adjective—it describes a noun, the word choice. What kind of choice do you have to be careful about? Word choice.

The verbal and adjectival functions are the commonest non-noun uses of the word word, although I can construct a sentence in which word functions arguably as an adverb (“The author of this blog is word happy.”), and I have heard it used alone (“Word!”) as an interjection, meaning roughly Right you are! or You’re speaking the truth!

Thus we have a single, simple word functioning as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and interjection. Nor is the flexibility of the word word unusual. Many words serve as both nouns and verbs (think of couch, table, park, and dog, for example)—and in fact I notice that these four randomly (honest!) selected words can also function as adjectives (e.g., couch cover, table saw, park bench, and dog biscuit). In fact the last can function as an adverb as well (dog tired).

The remarkable flexibility of English permits users to employ words that almost always function as a particular part of speech to serve occasionally as a different one. A famous example of this is the sentence “But me no buts” (often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare), in which the word but, usually used as a conjunction (“I want it but I can’t have it”) or a preposition (“I’ll never love anyone but you”), suddenly becomes both a verb and a noun in a single sentence.

Speakers and writers always have the license to use words in this way. I once heard a parent saying to his son during a Little League game, “Stop becausing me all the time,” and the son replying, “Then stop whying me all the time.” Both were speaking perfect English.

Why Study Grammar?

In a previous post (What I Mean by “Grammar”), I observed that the acquisition of the grammar of one’s first language (L1) is instinctive. As I said, “We acquire the grammar of our first language by hearing it at home and producing gradually improving approximations of grammatical oral language by ourselves and with the help of others.”

So, if we all know about grammar, at least to the point of being able to use it without thinking about it, why study it? We don’t study breathing.

This is a good question.

Implicit vs. explicit grammar. My answer is that, although we all know the basics of English grammar, our knowledge is implicit, not explicit. We know how to use grammar the way we know how to tie our shoes: We may do it every day, but we can’t tell anyone else how to do it. We do not know our grammar thoroughly or usefully.

Let’s start with “thoroughly.” Our native understanding of our own grammar is incomplete. Grammar is actually a remarkably sophisticated tool. There are subtleties of English grammar, which have arisen by conventional agreement over centuries and continue to evolve today, to which most of us are never exposed and of which we therefore remain unaware. The fact is that those subtleties distinguish careful, artful English use from less artful use. And some of the subtlest of those subtleties distinguish professional from amateur usage.

Now, how about “usefully”? If we use English grammar only instinctively, we do not formally learn the components and elements of grammar. But it is those elements that permit us to use grammar as a tool to analyze our own or other people’s statements; assess their accuracy, effectiveness, and elegance; and know when they are less than satisfactory. It is knowledge of the elements of English grammar—and their names—that gives us the power to talk about grammar, to use grammatical knowledge to analyze sentence logic, to apply our understanding of grammar to our study of other languages, and to comprehend the differences and similarities between English and other languages.

It is clear that not everyone is—or needs to be—concerned about the subtleties of grammar. It should also be clear, but isn’t, that those who are unconcerned about those subtleties are not incompetent or faulty users of  their native grammar, because it is essentially impossible to be incompetent in the grammar of one’s first language. Those of us who are careful about grammar are exercising a choice to be a bit fussy; we have the responsibility to avoid stigmatizing those who do not choose to be so meticulous about language.

In this blog, I will try to remain true to this responsibility. To begin with, I will try to treat “proper” grammar (which is better considered as standard grammar, meaning the grammar used by most careful English speakers and writers) as a subject of curiosity and interest, not bragging or social distinction. The subtleties of grammar are inherently interesting, I think, and anyone who loves this language may benefit from a more intricate knowledge of them.

Furthermore, careful language use usually reflects clarity of thought and produces clear expression. Such use is susceptible to analysis, critique, and logical argument. It is of course possible for careful speakers and writers to produce intentionally unclear expression for the purpose of obfuscation or deception, but if their words are carefully chosen and structured, critical analysis can reveal just how they have achieved their malign purpose and can help us to rebut their assertions.

Finally, careful speakers and writers use language artfully: They achieve beauty and elegance of expression, the way a careful user of paintbrushes, pencils, and chisels produces visual art. This sort of language use results in literature that benefits all of us, even those who do not or cannot follow suit.

However, those who do not care a whit about grammar, but just use it as they have always done—as a natural inheritance—are making a perfectly sane and reasonable choice. The good thing for all of us is that careful users of English understand less-careful users when they speak and write, just as less-careful users understand more-careful ones.

What I Mean by “Grammar”

This is a blog is about grammar, and so I should start with a working definition of what I mean by this word.

Grammar is the set of conventions that determine how the sentences of a language are constructed. Grammar refers to the choice, formation, sequence, spelling, and combination of words to form sentences generally accepted as linguistically correct.

Instinctive grammar. All users of English—or of any other language, including American Sign Language—routinely use grammar. In our own first language (what linguists call L1), we use grammar instinctively when we speak. We learn (or technically we acquire) the grammar of our first language by hearing it at home and producing gradually improving approximations of grammatical oral language by ourselves and with the help of others.

This process is automatic. By the time we are around 6, our oral fluency (specifically, our automatic use of standard grammar and vocabulary) is better than that of the average college student who has been struggling to learn our language for years. Way better.

Those annoying French schoolchildren.The first time I visited France, I remember feeling chagrin (no—more than that—resentment) every time I heard little French schoolchildren speaking without fear or failure the language in which, after years of sincere effort, I could barely manage to produce ghastly, halting, imbecilic sounds. I have since gotten used to it: There is no way around this phenomenon.

The thing is that, as native speakers, we pretty much can’t help learning to speak and understand our native language with comfort and fluency. We can’t help internalizing the grammar of our own language. This doesn’t mean that we know the “rules” of standard grammar; it means that we can recognize if a given sentence is grossly ungrammatical or generally grammatical. And we can spot non-native grammar from a half-mile away.

Imagine you and I are talking and I say “Me gets hungry. Come with I so food gets we can.” You will know immediately that I am either a singularly inept non-native speaker of English or joking.

What This Blog Is

Recreational space

This blog is a recreational space for the informal discussion of language.

This blog is intended to be not a classroom but a playground, in which I invite my readers (should I gain any) to play. My intent is to offer an interactive, informal space for discussing language (primarily the American English variety, but others are welcome too), including questions of grammar and recent linguistic trends and developments. Perhaps we can even come to a tentative agreement on some of the more vexatious issues facing careful users of English today.

I offer this as a place to discuss questions such as these:

  • Are split infinitives really all that bad?
  • Is there a reasonable alternative to the inelegant his or her construction in a culture rightly concerned about gender equality?
  • What is the best way to pronounce—in an English oral sentence—foreign words and phrases that have entered, or are entering, the English language? Is there a rule of thumb that prevents, on the one hand, a tone-deaf disrespect for other languages and, on the other, pedantry?
  • Should we simply give up on the word whom, and should we admit defeat when faced with the confusion surrounding the words whoever and whomever?
  • Is there a way to help people understand the use of apostrophes, quotation marks, and other threatened or abused marks of punctuation?

Maybe this will even be a place to go beyond words in isolation and to argue the relative merits of, say, cryptic vs. traditional American crosswords, or to converse about the differences between British and American detective stories, or to swap recommendations for interesting books (or blogs) to read.

In short, what this blog turns into some months out will be, I hope, a mutual project involving its readers and its primary author.