Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Grammatical Analysis: The Second Amendment

"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." 

I’m aware that jurists have split into two camps when it comes to the second amendment – those who argue that it refers to collective rights (the militia, or our modern National Guard), and those who argue that it refers to individual rights (each and every single American). I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t cite the many contradictory court decisions through the ages concerning gun ownership.

But I am a retired Professor of English, so I intend to approach the meaning of the second amendment through its grammar. First of all, let’s dump a couple of commas that make no sense in modern grammar. We end up with a sentence containing two parts:

(1) A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State,
(2) the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."

(1) The Latin predecessor of the first half of this sentence was called an ablative absolute; by itself, it was an incomplete sentence. The same is true in English, where it is now called an adverbial phrase or, more technically, a truncated dependent clause.
(2) The second half of this sentence is called the main clause; it is a complete sentence all by itself.

An ablative absolute is a phrase used as part of a sentence, but somewhat detached from the main clause of the sentence in the sense that it does not modify a particular word in the main clause. Rather, it modifies and sets the scene for the idea of the entire main clause.

The way that an ablative absolute modifies the idea of the main clause can vary. It can set up a condition for the main clause. It can establish a cause/effect relationship. It can refine the time element. It can modify the attendant circumstances. It can offer opposition to the idea of the main clause in order to set up a clarifying contrast.

The point to take away is this: the ablative absolute is not irrelevant in its sentence. Rather, it is absolutely essential to the total sentence. In fact, if you don’t factor it in, it is easy to distort the import and force of the idea of the main clause. The ablative absolute is an anchor, a pointer, a stabilizing bracket.

So let’s return to the wording of the second amendment. The main idea is this: the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. But the first part of the sentence tells us why people have a right to keep and bear arms and why that shouldn’t be infringed. It sets up a cause/effect relationship. People have a right to keep and bear arms because a well-regulated militia is necessary to keep the state secure and free.

Conclusion: grammatically, the ablative absolute limits the extent of the main clause. Able-bodied citizens were able to own weapons in case they were called up to serve as citizen soldiers in an emergency. Unless our Founding Fathers were grammatically ignorant, they weren’t giving carte blanche to individual civilian gun ownership as an absolute right in and of itself. It was conditional, and these days, the National Guard has supplanted civilian militias.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about two year’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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