The Meaning of a Sentence

· Logos/Ethos

Not long ago, I found myself in a high school classroom with a handful of honor students with too much time on their hands. They were willing to serve as subjects in an experiment that would test an idea that I had floating around in my mind for a while.

I gave them a sentence written in a style that we might today call awkward – not incorrect, just old-fashioned. It went like this:

                            The NFL playoffs, being the method used to determine the league

                            champion, the teams with the best season records should be eligible.

I asked them a) to paraphrase the sentence so as to make it clearer, and b) to determine how the three word groups relate to one another (in other words, how does the sentence work?)

If you would like to be a part of my test, you can try it now.

I then gave them another sentence, similarly constructed and asked them to do the same thing:

                            Health and prosperity, being two characteristics of happiness,

                           the freedom of the people should not be ignored.

Again, you are invited to participate.

The class agreed that the first sentence meant something like:

                           The teams with the best records should be included in

                           the playoffs which will determine the league champion

They agreed that the second word group (“to determine the league champion”) explains the PURPOSE of the first word group (“The NFL playoffs”) which is the METHOD. The third word group is the CONDITION necessary to satisfy the purpose.

Using the same method, they also agreed that the second sentence means something like:

                            People should be free to pursue health and prosperity which are necessary for

                           happiness.

The third and final sentence read:

                          A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,

                         the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.

Most of the students, I’m happy to report, recognized this as the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the source of much debate over the past two centuries. Using the same logic as they applied earlier (which is possible because the syntax is identical in all three sentences), they paraphrased it as:

                         The people have the right to bear arms in order to maintain

                         a militia, which is necessary to the security of a free state. 

(I should report that upon seeing this third sentence, several saw it as a trick and immediately began reconstructing it to match their pre-conceived opinions without regard for the word group relationships they determined in earlier sentences. Funny how the mind works.)

Despite what seems to be logical to an average Joe like myself, numerous courts over the past two centuries have determined that I am wrong. Whereas I conclude that people have the right to bear arms for the purpose of maintaining an army, they have determined that people have the right to bear arms for any purpose they wish, including the mass murder of first-grade children. 

I’m going to go look at it again to see if and where I went wrong. I hope they do the same thing.