Commas As Aids of Interpretation (And Lives!) | Saving Pandas from False Prosecutions….

A lawyer’s task is extremely challenging; he has to convince someone (the Judge) who is trained and hard-wired not to believe anything at face value, and rightly so. A judge takes everything with a pinch of salt. It is indeed a challenge. A lawyer overcomes this with his learning and his words. A practicing lawyer’s language, therefore, is his greatest stock in trade. Young lawyers should work and invest in their verbal as well as writing abilities. The ability to articulate even the most complex of issues clearly and putting them together simply, in the form of an understandable narrative, an interesting story, is extremely important for a lawyer.

Language and regard to rules of the language are equally important for the legislator and the judge.  Consider the following example: “Hey, let’s eat, Grandma” can easily degenerate into “Hey, let’s eat grandma” imperilling an old woman’s life. Right language and commas, therefore, save lives! Also, a prohibition like “Roko, mat jaane do” can easily be turned into the more positive “Roko mat, jaane do”.

The phrase, “Eats shoots and leaves”, a description of a harmless Panda bear, can easily turn into a description of a violent cow-boy from the wild west with the indiscriminate use of commas – “Eats, shoots, and leaves” and can make the panda really really upset; he may even be prosecuted and, really, nobody wants to prosecute pandas (how bad would it make the prosecutors look, just imagine!)

Language, therefore, has to be used with precision. Lawyers or Judges cannot afford to be reckless with language.

Tragically, punctuation has received a dismissive treatment from the Courts insofar as its importance as a tool of interpretation is concerned. The original reason for disregard of punctuation as an aid to interpretation was understandable, since legislators used to vote for the bills on the basis of what they had heard read out aloud by the legislator presenting the bill; however, there is no reason for eschewing these rules while interpreting laws today, when the legislators signify their assent to a written bill (with commas and all) and, despite all evidence to the contrary, we cannot assume that the legislators are blissfully unaware of the basic rules of grammar.

Punctuation is integral to the sense of the written word. Punctuation, apart from imperilling lives and entailing false prosecutions of innocent pandas, can also cause huge economic loss as this American case would tell us:

The United States Tariff Act of 1872 contained an exemption from tariff for semi tropical and tropical fruit plants, however, the clause was inartistically drafted and read something like: “fruitplants tropical and semitropical”; the misplaced comma after the word, “fruit” led to all fruits, whether tropical or not, also being exempted and this interpretation was upheld by the Courts. The legislature was, however, quick to act and corrected this anomaly and fruits, once again, were taken outside the tariff exemption and revenue rightfully restored. However, this small comma did cause the US treasury a loss of about $2 million; a princely amount in those days.

Since we are talking commas, another remarkable one is the Oxford Comma, or a Serial Comma. This the comma after the penultimate item in a series and just before the conjunction (a, b, and c). Authorities on English usage overwhelmingly recommend using the serial comma to prevent ambiguities. An example from Scalia’s book Reading Law is interesting. Let’s asssume that a testator bequeaths the residue of his enormous estate to “Bob, Sally, George and Jillian”. In view of the absence of the serial comma, should we understand the will to say that the devisees take 1/4th each or the last two take equal parts of a 1/3rd share? If Bob and Sally turn greedy and have also read the right books on grammar, they may take the plea. However, in such a case, attaching too much importance to the absence of a serial comma after, “George..” may defeat the intention of the testator and the Court may be right in disregarding its absence.

An aspiring lawyer, judge or a legislator should, therefore, do well to understand the basics of these rules in order to write better and clearer. 

Further reading:

  1. Reading law by Antonin Scalia and Garner
  2. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is a non- fiction book written by Lynne Truss