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Monday, January 21, 2013

An industry and culture built out of bad grammar

It takes the National Rifle Association to build a campaign for guns around resentment toward children—specifically, resentment toward two girls named Sasha and Malia.

                                                                            ---The New Yorker
The NRA is to literacy what sewage is to a mountain stream.  One can't think of a lower way to dishonor the children shot down at Newtown than to make two other children the target of their low life petulance.  But what else can you expect from an organization that is totally built on bad grammar and the misunderstanding it reveals?

The  NRA television ad that mentioned the Obama girls hit a new low for reprehensibility.  When it  was roundly criticized for using the girls in dishonest and disrespectful ways to trash Obama, a spokesman for the NRA claimed the ad was not about the girls.  Well, it wasn't totally about the girls.  It was mostly about the mentally deficient meanness and dishonesty of the NRA.  The Washington Post Fact-Checker gave the NRA four Pinocchios  for the lies contained in the ad.

And what it was really about is whether the kind of minds that contrive and support an ad such as this are the ones you want toting all manner of firearms anywhere their demented little minds take a notion to carry them.  

But these are the minds that insist that the Second Amendment gives anyone the right to possess and carry any kind of killing firearm they damned please.

 According to the standards of contemporary English grammar,  the Second Amendment is stated in a bad sentence.  It contains a danglling clause.  That means that it has a clause that has no specific meaning or interpretation in the way it applies to the sentence as a whole.  /The dangling clause is the first one In the 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.” The grammarians at the NRA have decided that because the  first clause dangles,  it can just be ignored.

A number of grammarians say the clause is not a dangler.  They say it is an "absolute construction."  An absolute construction is a clause used in Latin grammar, and what it does is provide the absolute overall 
purpose for the sentence.  In this case, the absolute purpose would be to establish and maintain a well-regulated militia.  

Many of the men involved in the Constitutional Convention could read and write in Latin.  In fact, during that time,  the English grammars of the time were largely borrowed from Latin.  As English had no formal grammar of its own, grammarians applied the rules from Latin to English.  There is a problem with that borrowing, which grammarians who undertook the study of English have  pointed out.  Latin is a declined language.  The declension of words, their endings and prefixes, indicate how words relate to each other and are the basis for coherent sentences.  English, however, is a syntactic language.  The relationship of  words to each other is determined by where they are placed in a sentence relative to each other.  When one encounters a dangling clause,  it is not clear just how the clause applies to the rest of the  sentence.  And that is why so much division has developed around the second Amendment. When Latin-based grammar is applied to an English sentence,  it is a like a Rorschach blot.  People see in it whatever they want. 

When a handgun law was challenged in Washington, D.C., the lawyers representing the city enlisted some help with explaining the Amendment.  Some of the nations prominent linguistic scholars were asked to examine the Amendment in terms of whether the first clause modified or restrict the second, and to examine the early drafts of the Second Amendment to see what the writers' intentions were.  James Madison was the primary author.  They issued a lengthy and definitive study of the Amendment.   They explained the problems with the grammar in the Amendment, and they noted that the circumstances that the Amendment is intended to address and the language itself is military.  They provide a long and detailed explanation of explained in this summary of the Amendment:
...the unmistakably military language used in the Second Amendment makes clear that what is protected is the right of the people to serve in a well regulated militia and keep arms for such service.
 They found that the entire purpose was to ensure that there would be a militia available to call on as an army in case the security of the free state was threatened, and the militia was subject to regulation in order to form it into an effective army.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, the brief which explained the linquistic history of the Amendment was largely ignored.  To pay attention to why the Amendment was written the way it was and what its original intention was could be seen as a mandate to regulate the firearms industry and to piss off those people whose votes, in effect, put the Supreme Court majority in office.  

And so a bunch of ignoramuses are ready to go to war against Obama because he is issuing some executive orders and is asking that the availability of weapons of war and their use be left in the hands of a well-regulated militia, rather than be handed over to anyone who chooses to go into a movie theater or a school to shoot down people.

While some people on Saturday were gathering in Washington, D.C. to honor Martin Luther King with a national day of service,  others were gathering throughout the nation for Gun Appreciation Day.  In other words, while some people were gathering to support the idea of serving their human fellows, others were gathering to support the right to  make the means to gun down fellow humans unrestricted.  Nothing states the moral divide in the nation more eloquently or forcefully.

And those gun appreciators insist that anyone who sees the need for some regulation of the kinds and places of use of firearms designed specifically to kill other humans are out to take away their guns.  It is the hyperbolic dishonesty in discussing the issue that is most telling.

The appreciators carried copies of the Constitution and vow to use their firearms to defend.  

Even if they haven't the vaguest idea of what it actually says and why.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States