Even with internal punctuation now, and canons of interpretation, "series of items or activities" can be ambiguous, and are arguable and appealed to final courts of appeal.

  1. Why did legal convention forbide many types of internal punctuation? Why did English legal professionals, shun internal punctuation?

  2. How did legal professionals tussle with the ambiguity and unreadable eyesore?

      You may notice that some older judges and lawyers do not use commas when listing a series of items or activities. This is a holdover from older days, when legal convention forbade the use of many types of internal punctuation. It used to be that courts would use internal punctuation to construe the terms of a document in a specific manner and lawyers attempted to evade that sort of construction by eliminating punctuation altogether. Such conventions have now largely disappeared, and you should follow the rules of grammar unless otherwise instructed by your employer.

Stacie Strong, BA English literature (UC Davis 1986), MPW (USC 1990), JD (Duke 1994), PhD Law (Cambridge 2002), DPhil (Oxford 2003). How to Write Law Essays & Exams 5th Edition (2018). p 149.

  • Interesting. I wasn't aware of that history.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 30, 2021 at 23:47

2 Answers 2

  1. One reason why punctuation was avoided, historically, was that it was feared that by adding punctuation the meaning of a document could be changed by some unscrupulous person after it had been signed.

The idea was that if there was a convention that no punctuation would be used then if any punctuation was found it would stick out as possibly fraudulent.

  1. The possibility of ambiguity is a constant concern even if punctuation is used. The important thing is to choose phrases which are unambiguous.

I'm not aware of anything that forbade it (but will edit / delete if shown to be wrong), and suspect that Strong may have been using a dramatic turn of phrase. There was believed to be a prevalent view in the legal profession that meaning should be clear from words and context alone - but it seems apparent today that this view was at best naive.

(Some good examples here.)

There would still seem to have been the possibility of using shorter sentences with repetition of the necessary words, or of rephrasing and/or rearranging the sentence to avoid ambiguity. Using one of the lawexplores.com examples : "This man said the judge is a fool" / "This man, said the judge, is a fool" could be rephrased for the second meaning as "The judge said that this man is a fool", or "This man is a fool. The judge said so.".

But - unless there's something I've missed that expressly forbade internal punctuation - I'm inclined to believe in a conventional approach that hadn't been thought through properly.

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