A grammatical discrepancy could decide whether Gov. Nathan Deal signs or vetoes a bill looking to allow guns on college campuses.
House Bill 280 passed the Georgia General Assembly shortly after midnight March 31 on the final day of the legislative session. The bill would allow weapons carry permit holders to conceal carry firearms everywhere on campus, with exceptions for student and Greek housing, sporting venues and daycare centers. A final version of the bill, written by a joint conference committee only a few hours before it passed both the House and the Senate, also introduced a few new exceptions in an attempt to please Gov. Deal, who vetoed a similar bill last year.
One of the concerns Deal raised last year was the lack of exception for administrative offices on campus. One of the last-minute exceptions looks to appease that concern, stating that the law shall "not apply to faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted."
However, a writer for GeorgiaPol.com has raised the concern about that sentence can and should be interpreted.
The sentence can actually be interpreted three ways.
Under one interpretation, it could apply to three separate things; it could not apply to faculty members, not apply to staff members, and not apply to administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary hearing are conducted.
Under another interpretation, it could apply to two separate things; it could not apply to faculty offices, staff offices, or administrative offices, and not apply to rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted. The offices would be exempt regardless if disciplinary hearings are conducted there.
Under a third interpretation, it could apply to only one thing; it could not apply to faculty offices or rooms, staff offices or rooms, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary hearings are conducted. The offices and rooms would be exempt only if disciplinary hearings are conducted there.
"This is one of those things were it depends on what the author is trying to say," said Robby Nadler, the assistant director of the UGA Writing Center.
Though some have advocated for the first interpretation, Nadler said it "seems odd," due to the Oxford comma, the use of which in series differs depending on what writing style to which an organization subscribes.
"We have to read the sentence as if the sentence is aware of Oxford commas, since there is already one present," he said, referring to the comma after "staff."
It is unclear what the Georgia legislature's stance on the Oxford comma is. While the User's Guide in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated does not mention rules regarding the Oxford comma, the text in the guide itself appears to utilize it.
For Nadler, the first grammatical interpretation raises questions.
"Why is it not just 'not apply to faculty, staff, administrative offices, or rooms where disciplinary hearings are conducted,'" he said. "That reading would not make sense on the basis that the writer knows how to use the Oxford comma. So I would take that one out."
The second and third interpretations, however, are a bit more "slippery," he said.
"This could easily be 'faculty, staff, or administrative offices' as one thing it doesn't apply to, and 'rooms where disciplinary hearings are conducted' as another thing," Nadler said. "Or it's trying to say it doesn't apply to 'these types of rooms and offices where disciplinary hearings are conducted.'"
Between the two, Nadler said the latter is the best interpretation when nit-picking the grammar.
"I'm tempted to read this as one item instead of two, because you would put in the prepositional 'to,' 'doesn't not apply to X or to Y,' if you wanted to have two separate items," he said, referring to putting a 'to' before 'rooms.'
Under that interpretation, faculty, staff and administrative offices would be exempt, and rooms where disciplinary hearings are conducted would be exempt.
Nadler said the confusion is understandable. The "to" often gets informally dropped, because it's implied to be read as one item, he said.
"Theoretically, just putting in the conjunction 'or,' it's just furthering the item," he said. "It hasn't indicated that there's a separate one."
Athens-area Senator Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville), who was involved in the conference committee which drew up the final version of the bill, said he interpreted the sentence to mean two separate items.
"You can't have one in a faculty office, you can't have one in a staff office, you can't have one in an administrative office, and you can't have one in a room where disciplinary proceedings are going on," he said.
Ginn said phrasing of legislation is generally handled by the General Assembly legislative counsel.
"Legislative counsel is a very large group of attorneys, and they do a very good job of formatting the legislation so that it can be entered into our Georgia code," he said.
Ginn said the counsel was involved in the conference committee discussion when the final version of the bill was drafted, and that attorneys will continue to analyze it.
"Attorneys are going to read into this six different ways to Sunday."
The legislative counsel could not be reached for comment.
In the end, Nadler suggests lawmakers could make their intentions clear by adding a second 'to.'
"I would be inclined to read this as one thing, 'any location where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,'" he said. "It's really small, but if it wants to be two different things, it would need to be structured as 'not apply to this or to that.'"
Gov. Deal has not commented on the matter.