The Oxford comma and its use in legal writing is a subject near and dear to my heart. It's popped up in my reading world twice this week, so I thought I would share.
First, I got an e-mail from LawProse, the company through which Bryan Garner - editor of Black's Law Dictionary and author of two major language-usage books - teaches seminars. (I took one of his writing seminars a couple of years ago and ADORED it. I want to go again, as it looks like he's changed the format and content a bit, but he's not going to be anywhere close this summer.) The e-mail contained a couple of brief legal lessons. One of them read:
What's the most frequent punctuation error that transactional lawyers make?
Answer: Failing to use the serial comma (aka the "Oxford comma"). Its omission is a mistake in legal instruments because litigable ambiguities often result.
I may have squealed "OMG, yes!" when I read this. This probably sounds completely asinine to most of you reading, but I've written decisions that turned on the use or non-use of a serial comma. I remember writing what was essentially a grammar lesson into my judgment entry, trying to explain why one side's interpretation of an indemnity clause was completely ridiculous. I cited Strunk and White. I would have gone to GMAU, but I don't yet own a copy (and have been lusting after one for years. Hint, hint family who may have happened upon the bloggy-blog. Mother's Day is coming up. Nothing says, "I love you, Mom!" like a tome on proper language usage. At least not to this mom.)
Because I'm nothing if not a giver, here's a brief example of a contract provision with and without the serial comma.
- The parties agree to lease an office, buy computers and paint.
Reading that sentence, without a comma after "computers" makes you think that the parties are agreeing to lease an office, buy computers, and buy paint. It could also be interpreted as agreeing to lease an office, buy computers, and paint the walls of the office. When these two parties have a falling out because one thinks the term should be read the first way, and the other thinks the terms should be read the second way, a court has to step in to resolve that ambiguity.
But, if the term looks like this:
- The parties agree to lease an office, buy computers, and paint.
The ambiguity is gone. The only reasonable interpretation of that term is that the parties agree to lease an office, buy computers, and paint the walls of the office. One little comma can save the time and money that goes into litigating the interpretation of a contract.
The day after the LawProse tip popped up in my inbox, I saw this article mentioned on Above the Law. A judge in Pennsylvania signed an order declaring his court "Oxford comma friendly," noting that those who fail to use it "shall be met with displeasure, disfavor, and derision." He sounds like my kind of judge.
If you made it this far, you're clearly as much of a grammar nerd as I (or you were just really, really bored). I have a love of Oxford commas, and I want to spread my love to the internet.
Law and Grammar Nerd, out.