An American Editor

November 2, 2011

Deciding Personhood: Words Do Matter!

The October 26, 2011 New York Times had an article about an upcoming citizens’ vote on a proposition to amend the Mississippi state constitution. The initiative would declare “a fertilized human egg to be a legal person.” Proposition 26, according to Ballotpedia, reads:

Should the term “person” be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?

(The official ballot summary of the measure reads:

Initiative #26 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to define the word “person” or “persons”, as those terms are used in Article III of the state constitution, to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.)

I don’t want to get into an argument about the merits or demerits of this proposition, or about abortion, or about when life begins. Rather, I think we should look at the proposition with an editorial eye. If this were a sentence (i.e., Proposition 26, not the ballot summary) in a book you were editing, would the sentence pass muster?

When an editor reads a sentence or a paragraph, the editor should be reading for many measures including construction, clarity versus ambiguity, word choice, and communication. If a sentence is ambiguous, does the ambiguity promote understanding when surrounding sentences are considered? Is it ambiguous only because it is introducing a new topic that has yet to be explored? Are the words chosen meaningful both separately and in combination?

Is the construction confusing? A good example of confusing construction is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

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.

Its meaning may well have been understood 200 years ago without discord, but today, the construction confuses the meaning and thus it needs interpretation. Is not this a failing of Proposition 26?

As written, Proposition 26 uses one vague word to define another vague word. Person is being defined by human being (I am treating human being as a single word), which is similarly vague but is wholly undefined unless we say it is being defined by person. Also undefined are moment of fertilization and cloning, both important concepts that are intended to contribute to the definition of person.

If this were a novel, perhaps the choice of wording and the sentence construction would be of less importance. But this isn’t a novel: Voters are being asked to approve a Mississippi constitution amendment that is poorly constructed and whose choice of words is ambiguous.

So, exactly what are voters being asked to approve or disapprove? If 10 voters were brought together and asked to define or explain the sentence, would we get 10 different responses? If approved by voters (which is the expected outcome even though many right-to-life groups and the Catholic Church are opposed to its passage), what, exactly, would be approved?

The danger of sentences like Proposition 26 is that you need Humpty Dumpty to interpret it: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

I think it is sentences and paragraphs constructed like this proposition that make a professional editor’s life simultaneously challenging, rewarding, and frustrating. Here’s my challenge to you:

Given the opportunity to refine Proposition 26, how would you refine it so as to minimize any ambiguities? Can it be made unambiguous? Editorially, how sound or unsound do you find this proposition?

Good luck!

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