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May I have a word: Copyediting the Constitution

The Framers could have used a sharp-quilled editor.

A lot of little things in the Constitution would be returned to a grammar school student, circled in red.Shutterstock

Two weeks ago, I opened Ideas to find that my colleagues and outside contributors had proposed changes to the Constitution to restore its status as a “living document,” as so many are fond of saying it already is. As it happens, I have strong views on how to bring the Constitution up to date: First and foremost, it needs a good copyedit. I explained this to National Public Radio in 1986, for the bicentennial of the Constitution, and I’ve been waiting ever since for someone with agency to take my advice. The time to update it was then. The need has only grown more urgent in the years since.

The Constitution as currently constituted can’t possibly be a living document, because its language is dead and becoming fossilized. Who knows what “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” are? They’re in the Constitution. So is the proviso that “no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood.” Yes, we can look up these phrases in a legal dictionary — but that’s not what a living document is about. Not even the members of the Supreme Court can agree on what much of the Constitution means.


At the simplest level of the task, there are a lot of little things in the Constitution that would be returned to a grammar school student circled in red. The Framers capitalized words willy-nilly. They wrote “it’s” with an apostrophe, no matter the context. They chose to spell choose with a u, rather than two os. It might make a good homework assignment to have schoolkids go through the Constitution word by word, line by line, and practice righting all those wrongs.

Then there’s a certain amount of outdated material that just tries a modern reader’s patience: “Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article” — that kind of thing.


Further, there are now nearly four times as many amendments as there were articles in the original document, and the overall organization is horrendous. Article I, Section 3, begins by saying that the state legislatures are supposed to elect senators. Unless you’re reading a version with footnotes, you’re likely to think you’ve stumbled across something pretty significant that no one else in the country seems to have noticed. Not until Amendment 17 do you find out that all that’s canceled — inoperative — and there’s a new plan. A competent copy editor could readily solve this problem: Just kill the first clause of Article I, Section 3, and put Amendment 17 up there in its place.

Not even these changes, though, get at the central problem: the legal jargon. Federal law requires things like consumer credit-card agreements to be written in language an ordinary person can understand. Shouldn’t we take the Constitution at least as seriously as we do an application for a Visa card?

From this point of view, every sentence of the Constitution needs a total overhaul. Take the first paragraph. It consists of one 52-word sentence: “We the People of the United States . . . ” and so on and so forth. OK, it sounds good. But it’s wordy and hard to follow, and most of it is a list of reasons why we need a Constitution. All that’s been beside the point since 1788, when the states agreed the Constitution was a good idea and ratified it.


Updating the whole document will be a monumental job. I’ve only made a start — on that first paragraph. I call it the Good News Preamble. It goes like this: “Our country is the United States. We want to make it better. And so we’ve come up with this Constitution.”

But I digress from my usual subject matter: I am still seeking the word that reader Rachel Wadsworth, of Sunderland, has asked for: a name for “the feeling that you are forgetting something.” Please send your coinages to me at by noon on Friday, Jan. 7, and kindly include where you live.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and London.

A previous version of this essay incorrectly stated that the Constitution was ratified in 1786.