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I've come across more than one case of ill-phrased 'legalese' and often wondered where the line is with respect to enforcibalilty etc. For example, a McDonalds promotion which disclaimed: "Offer ends October 30 or while supplies last". Does nonsense invalidate it, or is it a case of clear intent conveyed in muddled language?

I was reminded of this by a sign I saw on a recent trip:"NO TRESSPASSING WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM PAULDING COUNTY COMISSIONERS"

Yes, we know what they mean, but really, is this enforceable?

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    How would you interpret this to allow you to enter without permission? The sign itself if taken literally doesn't mean anything (since trespassing already means entry without permission), but if you disregard the sign then you still aren't allowed to trespass, so that wouldn't permit you to do anything. This is like a normal "No Trespassing" sign, which itself doesn't mean anything since that's always the law – Kevin Wells Oct 21 at 15:52
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    I am having trouble figuring out what is bad English in your post? Both the sign and Mcdonald's disclaimer seem to be valid and grammatical English... – MonkeyZeus Oct 21 at 16:37
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    Your question almost boils down to "How much does my reading comprehension affect the enforce-ability of legalese?" – MonkeyZeus Oct 21 at 16:44
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    i'm struggling to see how the sign pictured could possibly be misinterpreted. – eps Oct 21 at 16:49
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    @eps it implies you can trespass with written permission, the definition of trespass is to enter a property without permission, so therefore if you have permission you wouldn't be trespassing anymore. You can't "trespass with permission". – Ron Beyer Oct 21 at 20:03
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Law does not have an all-encompassing syntax and structure that, if not followed, makes it null and void. If a reasonable person could determine that (in the example of the sign you have) you are required to get written permission from any or all of the Paulding County Commissioners, then the sign is enforceable. I honestly don't see anything wrong with the sign you are displaying, it is reasonably clear.

If, for example the notice contains an ambiguity or unclear phrase, the "spirit" of the law or sign is upheld. If the sign had said something to the effect of "No trespassing without permission". It doesn't say who you need permission from, but you can reasonably ascertain that you must have permission from somebody in control of the land.

There is no line in the sand here. Often when a dispute in a contract comes up where it could be interpreted more than one way, it is often interpreted in favor of the person who did not write the contract.

"Offer ends October 30 or while supplies last"

Isn't really "ill-phrased" either. I assure you that those statements are vetted by highly paid lawyers from many jurisdictions. I'm not sure what "nonsense" you would be referring to in there. If the vendor runs out of promotional materials the promotion ends... If they had said "free hats to the first 100 customers on December 31st", you can't show up as the 101st customer and demand a hat, nor could you show up on January 1st (even if there were not 100 customers the previous day) and demand one either.

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    An offer ending is a point in time, "while supplies last" is an interval of time. – DJohnM Oct 21 at 2:39
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    The sign says you can trespass (enter without permission) only if you get permission from the County Commissioners – DJohnM Oct 21 at 2:41
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    "Offer ends [..] while supplies last" definitely sounds wrong, as the idea seems to be that the offer doesn't end until after the supplies have stopped lasting. Or, rather, that it's valid while supplies last. Somehow it sounds like an earlier version would have said just that, and then someone only partially modified it. @DJohnM, as for that one, logically it's impossible to enter without permission if you do have a permission, but the sign doesn't prohibit entering with a permission, so it's a non-issue, even if weird. :) Should say "No entry without permission ...", I guess? – ilkkachu Oct 21 at 8:32
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    @TRiG that's still joining the "Offer ends" part to the "while supplies last" part. "Free cake while supplies last" is a well phrased offer, as is "Free cake Offer ends October 30" – Caleth Oct 21 at 10:42
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    Are you sure about well-paid lawyers vetting these things? The phrasing seems needlessly sloppy. – Nat Oct 21 at 14:23
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It's only a problem if it's ambiguous or unclear.

Courts contend with grammatical mistakes and typos when interpreting text all the time, and have ways of determining what they mean—in fact, determining what text means is a large portion of what courts do. Even typographical errors (often called "scrivener's errors") that change a contract's meaning can be corrected with evidence of what it was supposed to say.

A good example of a borderline case of bad grammar is a Virginia law that required drivers to "stop...any school bus [that was letting out children]." Note the missing "at". The trial court judge found that it was obvious what the statute was supposed to say, but the appeals court found that because it was unambiguous (albeit unreasonable), the law should be interpreted literally. How literally such things are interpreted varies by jurisdiction, as some follow the "absurdity doctrine" that states that when choosing between possible meanings, to eliminate any that would produce absurd results.

This sign stating that trespassing is forbidden without written permission, however, does not have such ambiguities. The fact that it isn't possible to trespass with written permission doesn't make it any less clear that you are not allowed to trespass without written permission.

The McDonald's offer is also clear: all interpretations other than "the offer ends Oct 30 or when supplies run out, whichever happens first" make no sense (an offer can't end "while supplies last"), and no reasonable person would interpret it that way (which is the general standard for interpreting the meaning of text in an advertisement).

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    I find the notion that "the text as written doesn't make sense, so it must be read as what would make sense" to be a bit strange. I get it, but it makes my head hurt. – Jim Mack Oct 21 at 14:50
  • @JimMack Try to understand English as a strictly illogical language and it makes a lot more sense, at least in my experience. There's a book called Frindle that, while a children's book, still makes a good point on the efficacy of language. Quite literally intent and conveyance of that intent/meaning is all that matters, what's "logical" language in one region/dialect could be nonsensical in another, and that's alright as long as the intended meaning is conveyed to those using the language to communicate. – TCooper Oct 21 at 18:20
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    The McDonald's offer never said anything about "whichever happens first". It is true that an offer can't end "while supplies last", so that leaves open the possibility of poor wording. After all, why end the offer on October 30 if they still have supplies? What are they going to keep them for? They might as well continue to give them away after October 30. – pacoverflow Oct 21 at 18:55
  • Perhaps the school bus law meant that if a bus was letting out children, drivers should stop the bus, since it is clearly dangerous for a school bus to let out children while in motion. – PyRulez Oct 21 at 20:26
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    "an offer can't end "while supplies last" -- sure it can. That's exactly what happens once the Oct. 30 condition has been reached and not all offers have been redeemed. – Herohtar Oct 21 at 21:23
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I would have liked to comment on this, but not enough reputation...

I assure you that those statements are vetted by highly paid lawyers

I think it's a clash of culture. The OP's view on these signs seems grounded in pure logic (possibly computer science?) I assure you that from a purely logical perspective, both statements are indeed nonesense.

"Offer ends October 30 or while supplies last" literally means: "while supplies last, the offer ends, and also ends on October 30"

If I was writing this as computer code, the offer would NEVER be applicable.

The intended meaning (based on "common sense", not pure logic) obviously is "Offer will stop being valid by October 30, or when supplies run out, whichever occurs first"

Similarly, "getting permission to trespass" is a logical impossibility, since trespassing means entering without permission: you can't get permission to enter without permission, you can only get permission to enter. And if you don't get permission, it's trespassing.

Looking at these statements with "computer eyes" makes them sound illogical and inapplicable. But... The law clearly is meant for the common person, and to them the intent remains clear, despite the (demonstrably) garbled logic.

... It does make the statements incomprehensible to non-neurotypical people, though. So it might be argued there is a problem here in term of accessibility (in juridictions where such concept applies)

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    I don't believe all of these are vetted by lawyers of any pay grade; I think most signage and brochure copy is written by small teams who don't want to correct their boss, individual workers with average language skills, or, worst of all, committees. I have been on workplace policy-writing committees and frequently pointed out large gaps in wording that would have allowed complete avoidance of the policy intent. The combination of "they'll know what we mean", "let Bob have the last word" and "my own hot-button item is next on the agenda" is powerful. – CCTO Oct 21 at 13:38
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    It's like the old joke about the computer programmer whose wife tells him to get a loaf of bread on the way home and, "..if they have eggs, get six". He comes home and puts six loaves on the table. The wife asks why on earth he got six loaves; he replies, "well, they had eggs." – Oscar Bravo Oct 21 at 14:15
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    @user253751 no, it doesn't say get 6 more or add 6 loaves there's no += lol, it's 6 instead of 1, so he brought home 6, or if you rather var lob = 1; if(eggs == true){lob = 6;} – TCooper Oct 21 at 21:51
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    I have seen orthography/grammar errors (like silly mistakes that any native speaker carefully reading it should notice) on important documents (such as a banking contract template) even though they had to be reviewed by multiple lawyers, and not precisely cheap ones. – Ángel Oct 21 at 23:32
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    @TCooper Checking whether a boolean is true is overly wordy. Writing if (eggs == true) is like writing "If it's true that there are eggs". You can just write if eggs. Speaking of programming, how many times has someone come to Stack Overflow and asked why "if a = 1 or 2" isn't giving them the result they want? – Acccumulation Oct 22 at 8:17
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If you drive through the backwoods of Maine you'll see lots of signs that say "No Trespassing". They have not been vetted by lawyers; they have been vetted by decades (centuries?) of usage. Everyone knows that "No Trespassing" means "you can't come in here without permission". So "No Trespassing Without Permission", while redundant, isn't at all contradictory. And "No Trespassing Without Permission from XXXX" is perfectly clear.

As to why it's necessary to state the obvious, it's about hunting, implied easements over land, and traditional usage. "No Trespassing" means exactly what it says and has to be said in order to restrict traditional assumptions about use of land. For more details, go here.

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  • That doesn't really answer the question though - "No Trespassing" is essentially a "repeated negative" whereas "No trespassing without permission" is a double-negative. Most people understand the intent of both, but Lawyers aren't 'most people'. – Mike Brockington Oct 23 at 10:14

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