Dan Taylor; Second Amendment grammar lesson
I write to correct an understandable but nonetheless egregious grammatical error in JT Coyote’s attempt to parse the syntax of the Second Amendment in his opinion column. He describes the one-sentence amendment as consisting of “two dependent clauses, each modifying and explaining the other.” Not so. (Not possible either.) The first “clause” is in fact a nominative absolute, and the second is the independent or main clause of the sentence. Let me explain.
In its original form the Second Amendment reads as follows: “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.”
An absolute construction in its simplest form consists of a noun or pronoun and a participle that are absolute, i.e., grammatically separate and detached from the main clause, which it modifies adverbially. Example: “Hostages accepted, Caesar led his troops back to camp.” The noun is “Hostages,” the participle “accepted,” and the two words together constitute a nominative absolute. Absolute constructions are common in Indo-European languages but differ in case as witness the ablative, genitive, and locative absolutes in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit respectively.
So in the Second Amendment the noun “Militia” and the participle “being” make up the kernel of the nominative absolute. Absolute constructions are usually semantically related to the main clause as abridged conditional (if), circumstantial (since), causal (because), temporal (after, when), or adversative (although) clauses. “Aye, there’s the rub,” because by definition absolute constructions lack any such subordinating conjunctions, and so the precise nature of that semantic relationship to the main clause is left up to the reader or listener to determine.
The nominative absolute is not an especially common usage in English, is often confused with dangling participles, and is rarely taught in basic courses, and anyone’s inability to describe it correctly is therefore quite understandable. Indeed, the very unfamiliarity of the syntax of the nominative absolute in the Second Amendment may perhaps be partly responsible for its often mutually exclusive interpretations.
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