Members of the Constitutional Convention, led by James Madison, created the United States Constitution in 1787. As the convention came to a close on September 15, 1787, a clerk for the Pennsylvania State Assembly called Jacob Shallus started about putting it to “final form.” As was customary at the time, he did it by hand, using pen and ink. According to the National Archives, Shallus performed a “fine job” inscribing the more than 4,000 words on four big sheets of parchment paper, but that’s not to say Shallus didn’t make mistakes, or that others involved in the signing and amendment didn’t make further mistakes. Some of them were significant. Some of the errors were grammatical.
- The improper spelling of “its”: “No State shall … lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s Inspection Laws,” The phrase “it’s” was supposed to allude to the possessive form of the word “it” in this clause. Despite this, the term is spelt as a contraction of “it” and “is” (i.e., it’s). Because “its” is used correctly in other portions of the Constitution (for example, Article I, Section 5, which uses “its” correctly four times), the error appears to be due to casual transcribing rather than a lack of understanding of grammatical principles.
- How long should the President be in office? Article II, Section I states, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years….” The inference, as worded, is that the President will serve for an unspecified amount of time throughout a four-year tenure. The word “for” would have replaced the word “during” if it had been phrased more accurately.
- Is there a president? Which president are you referring to? The vesting of executive power in “a” President in Article II, Section I is also a bit unclear. A more specific method of expressing this would have been to use the term “the” instead of “a,” suggesting that the executive power would be held by one person at any one moment.
- “Pennsylvania” is misspelled: When it came time to sign the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton aided the process by writing the names of the signatories’ respective states. Hamilton scribbled “Pensylvania” next to Benjamin Franklin’s name, missing the second “n.” It was not fixed at the time, and it has not been corrected since. It’s especially ironic given that the Constitutional Convention was place in Philadelphia, which is one of the Constitution’s basics that every American should know.
- Capitalization that isn’t consistent: It was customary practice in the 1700s to capitalize the initial letter of every word. However, not every noun is capitalized. The word “defense,” which is written “defence” as mentioned below, appears in all lower case in the Preamble. The term “credit” does not begin with a capital “C” in Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 (concerning legislative borrowing power). In addition, the word “duty” is not capitalized in Article I, Section 9, Clause 1. in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8; and “present” in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. In the last ten years, these grammatical rules have evolved significantly. However, capitalisation has not. The capitalization restriction was dropped when the Bill of Rights was adopted two years later. As a result, the capitalization of the Bill of Rights differs from that of the original document. In addition, according to The Tenth Amendment Center, “a few mistakes crept in.” “The Bill of Rights contains several capitalized terms.
- A compound number is not hyphenated if it is not hyphenated: “When writing a compound number—any number made up of two words—we use a hyphen between each word. This applies to any number between twenty-one (21) and ninety-nine (99),” Grammarly suggests. Despite this, the number 25 is written without the required hyphen in Article I, Section 2.
- British spellings: Despite the fact that the United States had proclaimed independence from the United Kingdom, the Constitution retains several British spellings. As previously established, “defence” appears in the Preamble, as does “controul” (which is spelt “control” in the US) and “labour” (which is spelled “labor” in the US). Avoid these overused terms, whether you’re from the United States or the United Kingdom.
- The decision to use the word “chuse”: “most common mistake, at least to modern eyes, is the word ‘choose,’ spelled ‘chuse’ several times.” according to U.S. Constitution.net. However, rather than being an error, this is most likely a deliberate choice to utilize an alternate spelling that was popular at the time. The words “chuse” and “chusing” appear in the Constitution’s text.
- Part of Article II is rendered illogical by an erroneous comma: The third paragraph of Article II, Section I says, “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons…” The comma between “States” and “and vote” should show that the sentence “And vote by Ballot of two Persons” contains a noun. However, there is no such term. So the comma is grammatically improper, and the statement only makes sense if the comma is completely discarded. This type of error may be found throughout Article II, Section I, if not the whole Constitution.
- Failure to use Oxford commas correctly on a regular basis (or not): Whether you favor the Oxford comma (as we do) or not, good grammar dictates that you choose one and use it consistently throughout any given writing. The Constitution, on the other hand, does not work that way. Unlike the Preamble, which is a work of Oxford comma art and easy to interpret when evaluated as such, Article II, Section 4 skips the Oxford comma when it declares, “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be…”
- Between a noun and a verb, a comma is used: A noun and a verb must be in the same phrase of a sentence; otherwise, it isn’t a clause (which is defined as a portion of a sentence containing both noun and verb). So, what exactly is going on under Article III, Section I, which gives the Supreme Court judicial power? “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court,” the Constitution states. Huh.
- Between the Constitution and the highest law of the nation is a misplaced semi-colon: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land….” according to Article VI. Although it appears that the Constitution and the Laws, like Treaties, are intended to be the highest law of the nation, the placement of the semi-colon here may imply otherwise under strict grammar standards.
- In the Second Amendment, there are some questionable commas: “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.” according to the official wording of the Second Amendment. Both supporters and opponents of gun control measures have utilized the first and second commas to bolster their interpretations of the Second Amendment throughout the years. The placement of these commas has been construed by proponents of gun control to indicate “a well-regulated militia shall not be infringed,” thereby linking weapons strictly to militia duty. However, the United States Supreme Court has sided with individuals on the opposing side of the debate. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers who did not sign the Constitution because he was in France, attempted to introduce an alternate version that would have linked the right to bear arms solely with a well-regulated militia, but that he was too late; the Amendment had already been ratified.
The article is paraphrased from the following: 13 Glaring Grammar Mistakes in the U.S. Constitution, Lauren Cahn, Jan. 12, 2021, https://www.rd.com/article/mistakes-in-constitution/