It’s in the Constitution!

U.S. Constitution: Article I, Section 10, idiot “it's”As the author of that most notorious document, “The Use of the Apostrophe in the English Language”, I’m always on the lookout for how that most humble of punctuation marks humbles the high, mighty, and pompous.  One of these days I’m going to make a “meme” (yes, I know that this is a corruption of the original meaning of the word) which shows the apostrophe key on a keyboard with the legend “The apostrophe key: its there to show readers if your an idiot.”  Indeed, nothing so distinguishes slapdash scribbling from words worth reading than confusion between “its” and “it’s”.  That’s because the rule distinguishing them is so easy to remember: “If you mean ‘it is’, or ‘it has’, write ‘it’s’. Otherwise, write ‘its’.”  In particular, the use of “it’s” when the possessive “its” is intended, which I call an “idiot ‘it’s’ ”, is the signature of the sloppy writing of a muddled mind.

Imagine my surprise when reading the official transcription of the U.S. Constitution published by the U.S. National Archives to find, in Article I, Section 10, paragraph 2, the following text:

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Controul of the Congress.

(Spelling as in the original, emphasis mine.)

Good grief—an idiot “it’s” in the Constitution!

But was this a goof on the part of whoever made the transcription from the original text, as written out by Jacob Shallus, or is it in the parchment original?  Well, take a look at the enlargement of the original document at the top of this article (click the image for the full page, precisely as published by the U.S. National Archives).  The apostrophe is there, or at least appears to be.

Could it be a flaw in the parchment?  That’s possible, but I don’t see any others that resemble it, and the colour of the mark is very close to that of the letters of the word and the dot above the “i” at the start of the word.  The placement of the mark is consistent with the diagonal slant to the right at which dots above “i” appear throughout the text.  We can’t compare against another apostrophe, since this is the only apostrophe in the entire original text of the Constitution (or in fact, any of the amendments adopted to date).

Shallus’s original written text was not free of errors.  At the bottom left of the final page are these errata noted by Shallus.

The Word, “the,” being interlined between the seventh and eighth Lines of the first Page, The Word “Thirty” being partly written on an Erazure in the fifteenth Line of the first Page, The Words “is tried” being interlined between the thirty second and thirty third Lines of the first Page and the Word “the” being interlined between the forty third and forty fourth Lines of the second Page.

As the document linked above notes, the errata themselves include two errors: the position of the interlined “the” is incorrect, and a second interlined “the” two lines later is not mentioned.  When it came time to affix the signatures to the document, Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the names of the states to the left of each delegation’s signature, misspelled “Pennsylvania” as “Pensylvania”.  There is no mention of the “it’s” in the errata.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

9 thoughts on “It’s in the Constitution!”

  1. My guess is, they had more important things on their minds than this sort of trivial crap.

    One more reason that science types have no business running things 😉

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  2. Spelling and grammatical conventions were not firmly established in the 18th century. Consider all the quirky capitalization one finds in documents of the period. Maybe there was a more expansive (dare I say inclusive) approach to the use of the apostrophe in this case. After all, it is a possessive. Some other apostrophe catastrophes involve making plurals.

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  3. drlorentz:
    Maybe there was a more expansive (dare I say inclusive) approach to the use of the apostrophe in this case. After all, it is a possessive. Some other apostrophe catastrophes involve making plurals.

    What I found interesting and unusual is that this is the only apostrophe in the entire Constitution.  Perhaps the use of apostrophes to form possessives was not so common in the 18th century, or it was considered beneath the dignity of a foundational document.  There is a single apostrophe in the Declaration of Independence: “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—everywhere else possessives are written out with “of”.

    drlorentz:
    Consider all the quirky capitalization one finds in documents of the period.

    The National Archives document on the history of editions of the Constitution and errors therein notes that Shallus’s convention was to capitalise almost every noun in the text.  Early printed editions, however, used far fewer capitals when typesetting the document.  This wasn’t a matter of style, but rather because printers had insufficient capital letters in their type case to set all of the words that Shallus capitalised.  The first printed edition of the Constitution which is considered to be absolutely faithful to the Shallus written text was only prepared in 1847 by William Hickey of the Senate clerical staff.  It was published in a manual of the federal government, along with a certificate signed by Secretary of State James Buchanan declaring that it “has been critically compared with the originals in this Department & found to be correct, in text, letter, & punctuation. It may, therefore, be relied upon as a standard edition.”  (At the time, the original copy of the Constitution was in the possession of the State Department.)

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  4. But of  course, online courses like this were NOT available for the school year starting in September, 1787.

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  5. I have some experience of deciphering handwriting from various periods and in various languages.  It looks to me like a misplaced dot for the ‘i’ in the following word.

    Apostrophe Squid, you may stand down.

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    1. It looks like it’s  the dot for the next word “inspection” to me. Hey, that was close enough for government work.
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  6. 10 Cents:

    1. It looks like it’s  the dot for the next word “inspection” to me. Hey, that was close enough for government work.

    That is not the interpretation of the U.S. National Archives, which included the apostrophe in their official transcription of the Constitution.  I agree that the dot above the “i” in the following word “inspection” appears to be missing.

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  7. As Roxie, I have experience with deciphering documents from the 15th-19th centuries. Indeed, in earlier years no standards in spellings or punctuation.

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