Thursday, July 03, 2014

Period. Full Stop?

Jennifer Schuessler, If Only Thomas Jefferson Could Settle the Issue NYTimes (July 2, 2014)


Every Fourth of July, some Americans sit down to read the Declaration of Independence, reacquainting themselves with the nation’s founding charter exactly as it was signed by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.

Or almost exactly? A scholar is now saying that the official transcript of the document produced by the National Archives and Records Administration contains a significant error — smack in the middle of the sentence beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” no less.

The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for 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.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. ...

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Tillers: It has often been said that in the 18th century and before English-speaking peoples were remarkably lackadaisical about punctuation. If this is true, whether or not the period was there in the original Declaration of Independence was less significant than it would be to a 21st Century mind – and 18th-century "sloppiness" about punctuation suggests that "close textual analysis" to ascertain the meaning or intent of 18th-century documents will go badly wrong if the text being studied is studied in isolation. Are you listening, original intent theorists?
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