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On Writing and Gun Rights

Lately, I’ve been teaching Juniors in my Writing Seminar course to break down sentences into clauses and recognize patterns of construction–pretty standard fare for high school English.  I’ve also been listening to the national dialogue about the Second Amendment to the Constitution.  There’s a connection to be drawn here.  It has to be done carefully, of course, with respect for both sides of the gun control debate.  But it’s a teachable moment when English teachers can empower students in an immediate way.  We’re all hearing frequent references to school shootings and school safety in the national discourse, and in my own school there are visible changes in security policy.  I have proposed to teach an all-school grammar lesson to help students understand what’s going on.  Here’s how it might go.

Let’s take a one-clause sentence:  We sang the national anthem.  There’s a subject (We) and a verb (sang).

We can add some material before it:  The game being ready to begin, we sang the national anthem.  

There’s still only one clause, but we have added a participle (being), and we call the words related to it a participial phrase.  The trick is that its connection to the main clause has to be understood from context.  If we wanted to clarify that connection, we could revise the sentence in various ways.  Here are some possibilities:

  • Since the game was ready to begin, we sang the national anthem.  [suggests cause-effect]
  • Though the game was ready to begin, we sang the national anthem.  [suggests temporal interruption, delay]
  • The game was ready to begin, and still we sang the national anthem.  [suggests delay with possible frustration]

The second amendment to the Constitution is the only one in the Bill of Rights to begin with a participial phrase.  It’s like the two-part sentence that didn’t get revised:

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.

There’s a participial phrase about a militia and state security, and there’s a clause with subject: “right of the people to keep and bear arms” and a verb: “shall [not] be infringed”. Much of the controversy swirling around gun control legislation has to do with the relationship between the participial phrase and the main clause.  Is it cause and effect?  If so, perhaps only people who serve in a “well regulated militia” have the right to bear arms.  Or is the reference to militia just a restatement of something already established, something unrelated to the main clause?  If so, the right to bear arms is quite broad.

Word choice also plays a role in making this amendment controversial.  Here are two examples:

  • Does “people” mean individuals?  Or is it intended in the collective sense, “the people” as opposed to the “government”?
  • What does it mean to “bear arms”?  It’s a term generally used in military contexts: “bearing arms for one’s country.”   Is this another connection to the militia?  Or  does the phrase, in this case, include hunters, skeet shooters, and people focused on self protection?

Such nuances of interpretation are everywhere in the legislative and judicial process, but rarely are they so visible on the surface and so directly connected to student experience.   I hope lots of schools will seize the teachable moment.

  1. Deborah Marion
    February 10, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Not just like, but loooove this!

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