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How does Jefferson’s use of punctuation and phrasing in this sentence from the...

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ljm3515 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted September 25, 2012 at 5:40 PM via web

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How does Jefferson’s use of punctuation and phrasing in this sentence from the Declaration of Independence help the reader see what he was trying to emphasize?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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litteacher8 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 25, 2012 at 6:46 PM (Answer #1)

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The use of multiple commas forces the reader to stop and pause, considering what events are being described.  This technique slows down the reading and requires depth.

In this sentence, the first thing that one notices is the sentence structure.  This is a compound-complex sentence full of clauses, phrases and commas.  Let’s take the sentence a few clauses at a time.

(When in the Course of human events), [it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another], and [to assume among the powers of the earth]…

By beginning with the dependent clause starting with “when,” Jefferson gets the reader thinking about the circumstances, and what has caused this situation.  The focus is on when, or the time.  The comma after the clause (after events) makes us stop and think about what has happened, what human events are being discussed (in other words, English abuses).

He then goes on to use the infinitive phrase “to assume among the powers of the earth” followed by a comma and then “the separate and equal station which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”  This is an interesting juxtaposition.  He is basically suggesting that they have the right to assume control themselves based on the Laws of Nature.

Finally, there is the ending independent clause.

[A] decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Basically, by the end of the sentence Jefferson has declared his case for declaring his case!  This is why he chooses to end his sentence with this strong clause.  He has explained why he needs to declare the causes of separation.  He represents the laws of nature, and it is time for people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” because they are not working.  The colonists deserved to separate themselves, but they needed to explain why.

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