mitcho Michael 芳貴 Erlewine

Postdoctoral fellow, McGill Linguistics.


Eats, shoots, and leaves

I just read Clause and Effect (via DF), a great editorial discussing commas in the second amendment and their effects on interpretation of the law. I found this timely as Bailey and I just watched Institutional Memory, the penultimate episode of The West Wing, where Toby Ziegler discusses a comma in the fifth amendment’s takings clause: “nor shall private property be taken for public use[,] without just compensation.” BBC’s H2G2 has a pretty good write-up and there’s a listing of relevant links as well.

The funny thing about all of these is that we don’t speak commas. It’s used to graphically represent pauses in speech, but are often used according to certain artificial rules which, when used systematically, aim to help the reader parse the sentence or help disambiguate between different readings.1

I’m surprised Language Log hasn’t picked up this new piece yet. UPDATE: Yup, they got to it. Great coverage, as always.

  1. We use pauses in spoken language to do this too, but not necessarily in the same places that we place commas in “good” written language. 

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