Why grammar matters

Think the finer points of grammar don’t matter anymore? I’ve just been reading about the monumental impact of one grammatical oversight.

Few grammatical decisions can have had such significant consequences as the changing of a semi-colon to a comma in the legal charter of the Nuremburg trials, described in the Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2017, East West Street.

The book charts the origins of the concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ (defined in the book as crimes committed by the state against individuals) and ‘genocide’ (defined as crimes against a race or group on the basis of their identity). The Nuremburg trials marked the first time these concepts were called into play in a courtroom setting.

Note the semi-colon in this definition of crimes against humanity, taken from Article 6(c) of the legal charter:

“murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

In this context, the book describes how the semi-colon seems to allow a crime against humanity that had taken place before September 1939, the beginning of the war, to fall within the tribunal’s jurisdiction. However, a discrepancy between the Russian version of the text and the corresponding English and French versions saw it being replaced with a comma, to bring the English and French texts in line.

The replacement comma seemed to indicate that events that occurred before the war began were outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction. If crimes against humanity had to be connected to war, such actions that took place before the war began would not be punished. Despite the judges’ recognition that there had been significant atrocities taking place in Germany well before September 1939, they were powerless to address them.

East West Street is a compelling read, charting the lives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht, the two Jewish-refugee lawyers who developed the legal concepts mentioned above. I urge you to read it.