Posted tagged ‘Lockhart v. United States’

Comma chameleon: Punctuation makes news

March 8, 2016

958e15c68eae47f6c76eb1a68fd80f32-4Consider the comma. Often misused, often misplaced. Tiny, easy to overlook—but powerful enough to set off nonessential and introductory clauses.

The lowly comma has made the news at least three times in the past few months. Let’s give the mark its due.

  1. Harper Lee’s first book? second book? never-meant-to-be-a book? … anyway, Go Set a Watchman was published last July, for better or worse, whether she was aware of it or not. Given the evidence past and present—or “present” before the publication—it’s certainly hard to believe she was. On the other hand, a HarperCollins editor reportedly showed her a mockup of the cover with a comma after “Go,” as the phrase is in the King James Bible (Isaiah 21:6), and she—again, reportedly—responded, “That’s the Lord’s book. This is my book. And there is no comma.” (The press and public love anecdotes, especially greatly embellished ones.)
  1. In a case that got lots of media attention, an Ohio woman used her beau’s eye for detail to strike back when cited for a parking violation. Andrea Cammelleri left her Ford pickup parked on the street for more than 24 hours. She got a ticket. A West Jefferson, Ohio, ordinance forbids—or did—“any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle from daylong parking.”

Guess what? As her beau pointed out, a pickup truck isn’t any of those. Cammelleri protested. West Jefferson officials argued that the missing comma was a typo and that her truck illegally overstayed its welcome. Last summer, the Court of Appeals, Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio, ruled unanimously that maybe so, but the law should say what it meant, so the ticket was as gone as the comma. (Apparently West Jefferson has now restored its missing punctuation.)

  1. Should Avondale Lockhart spend 10 years in prison for child porn? In a U.S. Supreme Court case decided days ago, commas were central to the outcome.

The federal child-pornography law at issue says that anyone caught possessing the stuff is subject to the mandatory minimum if he or she has a prior state court conviction “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” The folks who wrote and approved that should have paid more attention to their grammar. Does “involving a minor or ward” apply to all three crimes or just to the last one?

Lockhart v. United States came down to, yes, the “series qualifier” v. the “last antecedent.” Team Lockhart favored the former (he’s off the hook). Team Fed favored the latter (see you next decade). In oral arguments, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Stick-It-to-the-Government, was Team Lockhart. Even without him, the court ruled 6-2 for Lockhart.

Said a commenter in Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh’s chat, “Justice Kagan’s dissent said (effectively) ‘all well and good, except when the series that precedes the profile have a close relationship to one another, the modifier applies to the entire series, not just the last antecedent.’ Frankly, I think Kagan got it right.”

Replied Walsh, “This is a good counterexample for the serial-comma fans who keep laughing about ‘my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’ If serial commas were used only cases of ambiguity, the presence of the serial comma in this case would make the majority opinion clearly correct. Otherwise, the statute is hopelessly ambiguous and the justices are left to guess.”

If the Supreme Court operated the way the Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio did, it would have sent the law back to Congress and told that august body to rewrite it to be far more clear. Maybe the court ought to try that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, score three for the comma. It’s mightier than it looks.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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