4 Ways Punctuation Puts the Constitution in Question

How important is it to use proper grammar? You may think a comma splice is no big deal, yet in some cases, scholars will be forced to examine your debatable punctuation choices more than two centuries later.

That’s the case with the writers of the United States Constitution, anyway. Considering that judges pour over every minute detail in order to interpret the law of the land, you best believe that even punctuation marks are called into question. Here are four grammar-based issues in America’s most influential document that are still up for debate:

1. What Does a Semicolon Mean?

This week, the Supreme Court will hear a case that actually hinges on a semicolon.

In past months, we’ve examined the religious groups’ quest to grant corporations the freedom of religion. The argument is that if corporations are people, and people have First Amendment rights like speech, then shouldn’t corporations be allowed religious rights and identity?

Interestingly, these groups are using a constitutional semicolon, in part, to make their case. They say that since the clauses about free exercise of religion and free speech are separated by a semicolon rather than a period, there is a “continuation of intent between the two.” An Appeals Court judge disagreed, but the Supreme Court justices want to ponder the matter for themselves.

Though this decision has no bearing on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act on the whole, it would permit companies to opt out of providing things like birth control to its employees for “religious reasons.” Politicos on both sides acknowledge, however, that if corporations are able to obtain this exemption, it could definitely undermine Obamacare’s clout.

2. The Right to Bear Commas

Gun control is a heated debate for a variety of reasons, but people often overlooked that some of the more intense legal battles on this subject hinge not on it being a life-or-death matter, but the inclusion of a single comma in the Second Amendment.

The Amendment 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.” The comma in question, between “State” and “the right” is the point of contention.

Courts have said the commas divide the Amendment into phrases, with the parts about militias being “prefatory” and the right to bear arms “operative,” thereby protecting gun ownership. On the other hand, gun control activists believe that the comma is either superfluous, or that the phrasing can be read to specify that the right to keep arms pertains to the militia.

The fact that the punctuation and strange phrasing has continually left this issue in question is fascinating from a historical perspective.

3. Switching a Punctuation Mark Alters Congressional Power

It’s not as if punctuation were an afterthought to the drafters of the Constitution. A battle between the use of a comma and a semicolon could have changed the meaning of Article I Section 8 of the Constitution drastically.

The section reads, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and Provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…”

One of the founding fathers, Gouverneur Morris, tried to slip a semicolon in before “to pay” instead of the comma. His intention was to grant the government more expansive powers. Many agree that had his peers not caught this trickery, it would have permitted and emphasized Congress’s ability to spend limitlessly.

Interestingly, in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has interpreted the line as if there were a semicolon anyway. As a result, unlike in the United States’s early years, Congress has a pretty unrestrained discretion when it comes to spending, just as Morris had hoped.

4. Technically, No One Can Be President Anymore

Article II of the Constitution says, “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President…”

With a proper grammatical reading, that sentence would stipulate that anyone born after 1787, when the Constitution was adopted, could not be President. Most likely, that is an erroneous comma following “United States.” If that comma were taken out, it would grant an exception only to immigrants at that particular time at the founding of the country. Nonetheless, it is funny to imagine that every president born in the 1800s or after has been unconstitutional.

Hey, birthers – here’s your ticket to impeaching Obama. Just good luck being able to find a replacement afterwards!

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Marie G.
Marie Gilman1 years ago

The examples in; the numbered points above show quite categorically those who wrote both the Constitution itself, and its intended amendments, and the actual article above, simply do not understand English grammar at all! The question as to whether to insert a colon or a semicolon or a comma (or not) does not always do the job. In order to covey the correct meaning of the passages I have read above, some extra words are required. For one example, the taxation item should have added the words "in order" (to pay, etc), That is the only correct way of communicating the real intention of the statement. It's no wonder people are confused - the words are wrong!

Kathlene Lentz
Kathlene Lentz1 years ago

There are things in our Constitution that I have long thought need to be reinterpreted. Or just plain rewritten. The "right" to bear arms? Sure, IF you are in the armed forces (the way I read it). But when you think about the time when the 2nd amendment was penned, our forefathers had no idea at all that there would come a time when we would have automatic weapons, armor piercing bullets, and crazy idiots who think that it's OK to shoot anyone who annoys them. If you want to argue that you have a "right" to bear arms, then also keep in mind that the arms they were talking about were single-shot black powder rifles. You want to carry one of those around, you be my guest. At least you won't be shooting up movie theaters, shopping malls or schools. You get one shot, then you stop and clean the barrel to remove remaining embers, repack the powder, reload, etc. That gives whoever you're shooting at plenty of time to knock you on your behind and hit you with a brick. I'm all for leveling the playing field, second amendment or not.

Margarita G.
Margarita G.1 years ago


Lynn C.
Lynn C.1 years ago


Laura T.
Laura T.1 years ago

people are only using punctuation as a means to an end in questioning the constitution&pushing any specific agenda. how about you stop using punctuation to suit you desire to rewrite the constitution to fit your personal needs&desires

Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle1 years ago

Anne M says it well. We love our Constitution but the fact of the matter is that it was written 250 years ago by some people who looked to the future for a better world for our country but were in fact part of the elite who in practice didn't live up to the ideals of the Constitution. Like slave owning and were actively engaging in genocide. And as she states many other countries who've adopted Constitutions of their own don't use ours as a template. They have much better ones that serve them better. I would strongly suggest that we, like other countries like Venezuela, rewrite our Constitution. But given the string of horrible decisions by the Supreme Court the sway that the wealthy elite and corporations have on America I tend to think I wouldn't like the oligarchy we live in encoded into our Constitution. Rewriting it to make it better is a beautiful dream. But in reality it would be corrupted even greater by those that place money and power above their fellow human beings and life on this planet.

Deborah W.
Deborah W.1 years ago

Evolution, as with everything, is now the stated reasoning for all things good or bad. depending on the point to be made.

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle1 years ago

It is scary when we have a Supreme court that seems motivated by corporate profit and dedicated to destrying our concept of Democracay.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola1 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Julie W.
Julie W.1 years ago

2) If you remove the comma as: “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.” doesn't read well and is incorrect grammar.

In this case, the comma(s) act like parentheses, eg “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 comma between 'Arms' and 'shall' is completely unnecessary.