Proofreading Goes Big-Time

by Fred Schwarz

When proofreaders lie awake at night — searching their souls or, at National Review, waiting for the final edit of the big Arbor Day symposium — they sometimes wonder about their place in the universe. Does it really matter if we say al-Qaeda or Al Qaeda? Will a missing serial comma shake the foundations of our free society? Is proofreading truly that important?

Well, according to Danielle Allen, of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., proofreading can affect the fate of nations. While researching her new book about the Declaration of Independence, Allen (a former NR intern who sipped the Kool-Aid and spat it out) found evidence that the Declaration’s current canonical text contains a period that wasn’t in the original — and that this added period has changed the meaning in a subtle but significant way.

The period comes in what may be the Declaration’s most ringing passage:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Allen says the weight of evidence suggests that the period after “Happiness” was a mistaken interpolation, and that the passage should all be one long sentence. And that has important implications for the role of government:

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

I’ve met Danielle, and she’s every bit as sharp as you’d expect. So while I’m not sure I agree that the presence or absence of this particular period actually alters the meaning, I’ll happily accept her discovery as evidence that proofreaders perform a vitally important function. While that probably won’t get us a pay raise, it should at least help us sleep a little better.

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