Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Hanged on a Comma

From Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves (99-101):

=start of excerpt=

[H]aving landed in Ireland in 1916 from a German submarine, [Sir Roger] Casement [1864-1916] was arrested and charged under the Treason Act of 1351, whereupon his defence counsel opted to argue a point of punctuation... His point was that the Treason Act was not only written in Norman French but was unpunctuated, and was thus open to interpretation. The contested words in question, translated literally, were:

If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm giving to them aid
and comfort in the realm or elsewhere ...

Casement's defence argued that, since Casement had not been adherent to the king's enemies "in the realm" (indeed, on the contrary, had scrupulously conducted all his treasonous plotting abroad), he was not guilty. ... Casement was clearly condemned by the phrase "or elsewhere", regardless of how you punctuate it. However, two judges duly traipsed off to the Public Record Office to examine the original statute and discovered under a microscope a faint but helpful virgule after the second "realm" which apparently... cleared up the whole thing. Mr Justice Darling ruled that "giving aid and comfort to the king's enemies" were words of apposition:

They are words to explain what is meant by being adherent to, and we think
that if a man be adherent to the king's enemies elsewhere, he is equally
adherent to the king's enemies, and if he is adherent to the king's enemies,
then he commits the treason which the statute of Edward III defines.

How this story ever got the sensational name "hanged on a comma", however, is an interesting matter. "Tried to get off on a comma" is a more accurate representation of the truth.

=end of excerpt=

This reminds me of an occassion in the Hundred Years War game when, role-playing as Lord Chief Justice of England, I made fun of the spelling of a French lord, and of the ensuing discussion on spelling, grammar, and a bit of other things. Fxs


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