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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

The Commas of the U.S. Second Amendment

Updated: Mar 2

The original text of the U.S. Second Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, has caused a lot of controversy, culminating in the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case and decision, which has arguably unleashed a torrent of weaponry unto the U.S. population.

Here is the original version of the Amendment, including the three commas, which are confusing to modern readers:

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.

A painting "Battle of Bunker Hill" by Percy Moran, depicting a battle during the American Revolution
Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran

The Old School of Punctuation in English

The structure of this sentence and the uses of the commas represent the old school of punctuation in the English language. For a long time, punctuation was understood as a way to represent in writing the way we speak. And this idea, in turn, was rooted in understanding writing as an extension of speech. Nowadays, however, grammarians and editors are inclined to view writing as reflecting not the way we speak but the way we read—more specifically, the way we read silently.

In other words, rather than representing the rhythms of our speech, including pauses and intonational patterns occurring in speech, the current understanding of punctuation is that it should match the way we parse (scan) text with our eyes and use our inner voice to vocalize what we read. Just as we speak in chunks, or intonational units, we also read by scanning in manageable, albeit longer, chunks, which we mark using punctuation.

By dividing written text into scannable and meaningful information units, punctuation provides structural constraints on construction of clauses and sentences, which is, incidentally, how we understand the function of grammar. So, because reading is faster than speaking, the current English punctuation system marks up larger chunks of information comparing to the old system, or, to put it bluntly, English sentences used to have more punctuation marks in the past than now.

In the current English system of punctuation, some naturally occurring pauses or intonation breaks are not anymore indicated with punctuation. One such intonational pause is the position immediately after a long subject. For example, if you read the sentences below, you will make a pause after the subject of the sentence (in bold):

The good taste of the present age | has not allowed us to neglect the cultivation of the English language.

Simon and Tina Weissman | have married three years ago.

Everybody but Goldenbreath | has tried for the team.

In the past, these subjects were followed by a comma to match the intonational pause. As it happens, the first and the third commas used in the U.S. Second Amendment mark the long subjects of the two clauses that comprise the sentence.


Long Subjects

Subjects become longer if they are modified with something that comes after the subject: e.g., a postmodifying prepositional phrase or a relative clause. Subjects formed as clauses or as compound subjects are also the common examples of long subjects:

Whoever is capable of forgetting a benefit is an enemy to society.

According to Joseph Robertson, who in his 1785 essay “An Essay on Punctuation” used this sentence as an example of how a long subject should be followed by a comma for clarity:

Whoever is capable of forgetting a benefit, is an enemy to society.

Here are some more examples of long subjects from English literature:

But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with which we are concerned, was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady


The Commas of the U.S. Second Amendment

The original sentence of the Second Amendment contains three commas. What kind of a sentence is it?

First of all, structurally, this is a complex sentence, consisting of a main clause and one dependent clause. So, one of the commas (Comma 2) must account for the separation between these clauses in the sentence.

So, in the Second Amendment:

The subordinate clause:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,

The main clause:

… the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The dependent clause is rather peculiar, however. This is what grammarians call an absolute clause (or a nominative absolute clause). (The term absolute derives from Latin absolūtum, meaning “loosened from” or “separated.”)


Absolute Clause (Comma 2)

Most subordinate clauses are either finite (meaning they have a regular verb) or nonfinite (with their verbs formed as either a present -ing participle, past -ed participle, or to-infinitive). While finite subordinate clauses have their subjects, nonfinite ones generally don’t. Or rather they have an implicit subject shared with the main clause.

For example, in this sentence, the dependent clause does not have an explicit subject: It shares its subject with the main clause, which is the children, and it’s implicitly understood as the subject of the dependent clause:

Having completed their homework, the children were getting ready for bed.

[= After the children completed their homework, they were getting ready for bed.]

An absolute clause is also a nonfinite clause, but it has its own explicitly stated subject (which is always in the nominative case). Generally speaking, the subject in an absolute clause is a noun or a noun phrase that is modified by either a present tense -ing participle, a past tense -ed participle, or a verbless predicative (adjective, prepositional phrase, etc.). Absolute clauses tend to be formal, often signaling a reason/cause of what is described in the main clause.

To illustrate the use of an absolute clause, here are two examples:

The work being done, I felt as free as a bird.

The work done, I felt as free as a bird.

[= Because the work was done, I felt as free as a bird.]

With Mr. James being in charge, things moved quickly.

With Mr. James in charge, things moved quickly.

[= Because Mr. James was in charge, things moved quickly.]

Absolute clauses are always enclosed with a pair of punctuation marks. In the case of the Second Amendment, only one comma (Comma 2) marks the absolute clause because it is positioned at the beginning of the sentence.


Long-Subject Commas (Comma 1 & Comma 3)

And, finally, given that this is written in the old punctuation style and since both clauses have their own modified subjects (which makes them long), both subjects are followed by commas: Comma 1 and Comma 3.

Comma 1: The long subject (a well regulated Militia) is marked with a comma:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,

Comma 3: The long subject (the right of the people to keep and bear Arms) is marked with a comma:

the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So, since Comma 1 and Comma 3 mark the long subjects, we can revise the Amendment by taking them out while retaining Comma 3 between the clauses. In the end, we get this perfectly readable sentence:

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 a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms should not be infringed.]


My Five Cents ...

What the U.S. Second Amendment simply states is that, for each state, having a well-regulated militia is what ensures the autonomy and security of each state vis-à-vis the central federal government. As such, the right to organize militias is conferred upon the state citizenry, which is the civic collective, or, to quote the Amendment itself, “the people”—and not people or persons, and certainly not individuals.

If an individual were the subject of this Amendment, the Amendment would then be about the necessity to secure one’s freedom (and autonomy) as a U.S. citizen, and, as a result, the right of such a citizen to organize into an orderly self-defense and, possibly, a defense of one’s family—against an infringement from a government, both state and federal. The document does not make any such assertions, however.

Besides, participating in a militia is not equivalent to individual self-defense. On the contrary, when reading this Amendment, what transpires is that the freedom of a U.S. state (a state entity) tramples the freedom of an individual citizen of the U.S. (a federal entity).

Or, to put it differently, when it comes to military defense—meaning, pledging one’s life in exchange for citizenship—U.S. citizens’ pledge to protect the federal government is expected to come secondary to their commitments towards their home states, at least according to the U.S. Second Amendment. Which is exactly what happened in the American Civil War, it seems.

An ornamental flower

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