Punctuation is very important, as we have seen in our post on punctuation fails. When it comes to writing legislation, contracts, or patents, it’s even more important, as a single extra comma or missing comma can completely alter the underlying meaning.
For example, the Second Amendment of the US Constitution reads: “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.”
Because of the comma displayed in red above, the District of Columbia’s Court of Appeal struck down a local ban on handguns. The New York Times reports that “[a]ccording to the court, 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,’“
The case was further argued in front of the Supreme Court, with both sides fighting about grammar rather than law, and the Court of Appeal’s opinion was affirmed.
Interestingly, it seems that the Amendment has been ratified with 2 commas in some States and 3 in others. Personally, I think that only one comma is necessary to make the meaning clear, as in ” 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.”, and it is actually the version of the Library of Congress.
I also believe that the Amendment has become meaningless and should be repealed altogether, but that’s another story!
On a different note, the AP reports the case of a Ohio woman who fought in court to have her parking citation removed. The reason? The law enacted by the village of West Jefferson lists several types of vehicles that cannot be parked for more than 24 hours. The list includes “motor vehicle camper,” without any comma between “vehicle” and “camper”.
The woman argued that her pickup truck wasn’t a “motor vehicle camper”, so that her parking ticket was invalid. The case went all the way to the District Court of Appeal, where the village argued that the law’s meaning clearly should be understood with the comma. However, the judge ruled in her favor, saying that “West Jefferson should amend the law if it wants it read differently.”
To summarize, as we have mentioned many times on this blog, punctuation matters, and a missing comma can be as damaging to meaning as an extra one!