13 Glaring Grammar Mistakes in the U.S. Constitution
The Constitution may have earned an "A" in civics, but in terms of grammar, it's well below the (Liberty) bell-shaped curve.
In 1787, the U.S. Constitution was drafted by members of the Constitutional Convention, as led by James Madison. On September 15, 1787, as the convention wound down, a man named Jacob Shallus, who was a clerk for the Pennsylvania State Assembly, set about committing it to “final form.” He did so by hand, with pen and ink, as was standard for the time. Shallus did a “fine job” inscribing the more than 4,000 words across four large sheets of parchment paper, as the National Archives states, but that’s not to say Shallus didn’t make errors, or that further errors weren’t made by others who had a hand in its signing and amendment. Some were substantive. Some were grammatical. Some may or may not involve a little of both.
“It’s” not the correct 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,” reads Article 1, Section 10. As used in this clause, the word “it’s” was meant to refer to the possessive of the word “it.” Nevertheless, the word is spelled as if it were the contraction of “it” and “is” (i.e., it’s). Because “its” is used properly in other sections of the Constitution (see, for example, Article I, Section 5, which uses “its” properly four times), the error here seems to be more about careless transcription than failure to know the rules of grammar. We’re willing to cut SHallus some slack on this one, it’s v its is, after all, one of the 20 most confusing grammar rules.
For how long should the President preside?
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….” As written, the implication is the President is to be in office for some undefined period of time during a term of four years. If it were written more precisely, the word “for” would have stood in for the word “during.”
A president? Which president?
Also a bit confusing in Article II, Section I is the vesting of executive Power in “a” President. A more precise way of stating this would have used the word “the” instead of “a,” thus indicating that at any one time, one person would hold the executive power.
Misspelling of “Pennsylvania”
When it came time for the Constitution to be signed, Alexander Hamilton helped out by writing the name of the respective states represented by the signatories. “Pensylvania,” Hamilton wrote beside Benjamin Franklin’s name, omitting the second “n.” No one corrected it then, and no one has corrected it since. It’s especially ironic given that the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia. See what the most misspelled words in America are today.
In the 1700s, it was common practice to capitalize the first letter of every noun. Yet every noun is not capitalized. For example, in the Preamble, the word “defense,” which is spelled “defence” as discussed below, appears in all lower case. In Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 (regarding congressional borrowing power), the word “credit” does not begin with a capital “C.” And in Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, “duty” is left uncapitalized. and “present” in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. These grammar rules have changed a lot in the last decade. but capitalization hasn’t.
When the Bill of Rights was drafted two years later, Congress elected to drop the capitalization rule. Accordingly, the Bill of Rights doesn’t match the capitalization of the original document. In addition, “a few mistakes crept in,” notes The Tenth Amendment Center. “Several of the nouns in the Bill of Rights [are] capitalized.
Failure to hyphenate a compound number
“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),” advises Grammarly. Yet in Article I, Section 2, the number 25 is written as “twenty five,” without the appropriate hyphen.
Although the United States had declared independence from the British motherland, the Constitution employs some traditional British spellings. These include “defence” in the Preamble, as mentioned above, “controul” (which is spelled “control” in the United States) and “labour” (which is spelled “labor” in the United States.). Whether you’re from the United States or U.K., avoid these overused words.
The choice to use “chuse”
According to U.S. Constitution.net, the “most common mistake, at least to modern eyes, is the word ‘choose,’ spelled ‘chuse’ several times.” However, this is likely a choice to employ an alternate spelling that was used at the time, rather than an error. Both “chuse” and “chusing” can be found in the text of the Constitution.
An errant comma renders part of Article II nonsensical
“The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons…” reads the third paragraph of Article II, Section I. The comma between “States” and “and vote” should indicate the presence of a noun in the clause, “And vote by Ballot of two Persons.” No such noun is present, however. So the comma is grammatically incorrect, and only if the comma is ignored entirely, does the sentence make any sense at all.
We see this same kind of mistake throughout Article II, Section I, if not throughout the entire Constitution. Learn how many people actually signed the Constitution.
Failure to consistently utilize Oxford commas (or not)
Whether you prefer the Oxford comma (as we do), or not, proper grammar requires choosing one and sticking with it throughout any particular document. That is not how the Constitution rolls, however. Whereas the Preamble is a veritable work of Oxford comma art and is easy to parse when analyzed as such, Article II, Section 4 ignores the Oxford comma when it states, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be….”
A comma between a noun and a verb
A noun and a verb need to be together in the same clause of a sentence, or else it’s not really a clause (which is defined as a portion of a sentence containing both noun and verb). So then what’s going on in Article III, Section I, vesting judicial power in the Supreme Court? It reads, “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court.” Huh.
A misplaced semi-colon stands between the Constitution and the supreme law of the land
Article VI provides that “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….” It seems clear the Constitution and the Laws are intended to be the supreme law of the land just as much as Treaties are, and yet the placement of the semi-colon here might suggest otherwise under strict grammar rules.
Questionable commas in the Second Amendment
The official version of 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.” Over the years, both proponents and opponents of gun control laws have used both the first and second comma to support their reading of the Second Amendment.
Those in support of gun control have interpreted the placement of these commas to mean “a well-regulated militia shall not be infringed,” thus connecting guns solely to service in the militia. The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with those on the other side of the argument, however. In 2016, the Atlantic reported that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers who did not sign the Constitution because he was in France, actually tried to introduce an alternate version without the first comma, which 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.
While these mistakes are undeniably true, these 10 “facts” about the Constitution that are actually myths.
- National Archives: Errors in the Constitution—Typographical and Congressional
- National Archives: The Constitution of the United States—A Transcription
- Cambridge Dictionary: During or For?
- English Language Learners Stack Exchange: How do I know when to use “the” versus “a” versus “∅” as an article on a noun?
- Tenth Amendment Center: The Constitution: Capitalization
- Grammarly: Hyphen in Compound Numbers
- usconstitution.net: Misspellings in the U.S. Constitution
- Supreme Court of the United States: District of Columbia v. Heller
- The Atlantic: The Most Consequential Comma in U.S. History?
- National Constitution Center: The Constitution of the United States: Fast FAQs