OK. I am going to mess with the Constitution and remove the word "several." Would the meaning of the Commerce Clause be the same?

The Commerce Clause refers to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”

  • First, several is not an adjective -- it's a quantifier. Second, if you don't understand that much logic, probably you shouldn't be messing around with the Constitution, OK? You never know, it might turn out to be loaded or something. – John Lawler Apr 26 '12 at 2:09
  • What ignorance! Look up "several" in any dictionary. Tell me which one classifies it as "quantifier". Stop making things up. – RJIGO Apr 26 '12 at 2:14
  • @JohnLawler: whatever the label you give it, 'several' acts like a modifier of nouns under many circumstances, doesn't it? (and that action shares quite a bit with adjectives like 'green' or 'sleepless') – Mitch Apr 26 '12 at 2:44
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    I don't think "several" there is a "quantifier" (a type of determiner which denotes imprecise quantity). It's OED's definition "adjective - existing apart, separate." Which imho is even more reason for OP not to think about removing it - the fact that those various states are thereby acknowledged as being distinct, quasi-autonomous entities is significant, and should be preserved. – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 3:35
  • @FumbleFingers Why not turn this into an Answer? – Eugene Seidel Apr 26 '12 at 8:07

Let me take a crack at this, starting first with your general question:

If an adjective is removed, what's the consequence?

In some cases, there would be little loss of meaning, but the writing would be a lot more colorless; for example:

The hungry girl devoured the piping hot food.


The girl devoured the food.

Other times, the lack of an adjective will introduce ambiguity:

The tall policeman put a ticket on the red car across the street.


The policeman put a ticket on the car across the street.

which might be a bit confusing, particularly if there were two policemen (one tall, and one short), and two cars (one red, and one silver).

Now, to your question in particular:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

Notice how often the term the United States appears in Section 8. That's because, for most of that section, the document is addressing federal issues: national defense, national debt, punishments for counterfeiting, etc. Yet in the commerce clause (the one you quoted), the Constitution is referring to commerce between the individual states, not just between the country and other nations. Hence, the United States becomes the several states.

Could the word "several" be removed and the original meaning stay preserved? I believe so, particularly if the preposition "between" was used instead of "among." After all, the document is merely enumerating three possible areas of commerce regulation, and declaring that Congress has the authority to regulate all three:

  • Commerce between the United States and some other nation (e.g. The U.S. and France)
  • Commerce among the states themselves (e.g., between New York and Rhode Island)
  • Commerce between the U.S., and one of the Indian Tribes

Could that still be inferred and understood, after the word "several" was removed? Probably.

Bottom line: I think the word "several" helps convey the full meaning and intent of the clause, but I don't feel it's a necessary word.

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    There's a potential distinction to be made between Commerce between the United States and some other nation, and Commerce between an individual member state and some other nation. I think both are covered through use of "several", as well as Commerce between the states themselves. – FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 4:31
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    @FumbleFingers: Sometimes, both situations you describe are covered under the first clause (i.e., commerce between the U.S. and some other nation), because commerce between Virginia and France is commerce between the U.S. and France. Other times, they are different, and states retain certain authorities. When congress and the state(s) in question disagree, the matter is often settled by the Supreme Court. Here is a good synopsis of four different ways this clause can be interpreted, along w/ some court cases. – J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 9:19

I don't know about the constitution but in writing patents you are constantly writing "a plurality of ...." to make it clear you mean more than one.

The idea is to leave no possible argument for a lawyer to claim that states meant a single state.

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    As if states is not the plural of state and the states are not inherently a plurality. Legal tautology! – Kris Apr 26 '12 at 7:27
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    @Kris: Per my comment to the Q, I think it's not tautological. Obviously the "states" are plural - but the wording specifically implies that Congress may regulate commerce between separate states, not just between any one state and "foreign nations or Indian tribes". By implication, Congress does not have power to regulate commerce between Indian tribes clearly they have no power to regulate commerce between foreign nations, so the fact that Indian tribes aren't given the epithet "separate" should be seen as significant in such carefully-worded documents. – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 14:21
  • @Kirs - a reasonable person would think 'states' was plural, but a lawyer only has to find one case out of millions where a plural implied a single item to bring the whole thing into question – mgb Apr 26 '12 at 15:14

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