The perils of grammar, and its impact on the Declaration of Independence.
Bad. Grammar. Is. Everywhere. We’ve come to accept poor punctuation, misspellings, and missing capitilization as the price of texting convenience, but it’s nothing new. Bad grammar has been with us since the Egyptian scribe Belixibus wrote “vulture, bee, fruit basket” when he should’ve written “vulture, bee, duckling.” Come on!
What’s new is that the intergooglewebtubes can reproduce that grammar error quickly and indefinitely. Assuming the two fine citizens pictured above weren’t joking, they can now enjoy years of ridicule, courtesy of photo accurate reproduction and the convenience of the “share” button.
But back in the old days, reproduction wasn’t quite so automated. Folks had to manually copy documents, so we’re never quite sure with those copies whether they exactly match the original. The Bible’s John 11:35 is often translated as “Jesus wept,” for example, but insiders know the original manuscript read, “Jesus swept.” He was a notorious clean freak, so we can only assume that generations of monks hand-copying the Book of John are responsible for this error.
That brings us to a recent article in the New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler. Apparently the original parchment draft of the Declaration of Independence and the official transcript of that document in the National Archives may differ by one very important punctuation mark:
The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.
That errant spot of ink, she believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document.
So what, right? Period schmeriod. We know what Thomas Jefferson—or “Big Jeff” as the Continental Congress called him, according to no one—meant, don’t we? Individuals have those rights and big gubment needs to be controlled.
For the sake of conversation, though, let’s take a look at the passage in question.
Here’s what’s in the official transcript:
….all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men….
And here’s how Professor Allen states the original reads:
….all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men….
It’s a tiny difference, but according to Allen an important one:
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights. You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
Of course Allen’s argument won’t have any bearing on the screaming we hear from noisy pundits, but for those of us who are a little more reflective the professor’s research raises interesting questions. Should we accept that any document is infallible? Should we be so quick to assume that we know the true meaning of any text that has been transcribed, translated, and replicated? And what about the demise of grammar—do things like punctuation and capitalization matter in our new technological world?
I don’t have answers, but I need to wrap this up and go help my uncle jack off a horse. Poor uncle jack has been stuck in the saddle for an hour.
What? What did you think I meant?