War strikes lockouts

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A publication agreement that was just presented to me for signature takes minimization of typographical clutter to a new extreme:

No rights shall revert if it is not possible to reprint or reissue the Work for reasons connected with any war strikes lockouts or circumstances beyond the Publisher's reasonable control.

The underlined part, clearly intended as a 4-member nominal coordination, is not a grammatical phrase at all.

Modern written English allows either (for example) war, strikes, lockouts, or disasters (with the "Oxford comma", which is my preference), or war, strikes, lockouts or disasters (without the Oxford comma); but no current policy permits *war strikes lockouts or disasters (on the assumption that there is no such thing as a "war strikes lockout").

I don't think this is a sign of any new legal policy of total comma elimination, because elsewhere in the agreement there are coordinations punctuated with an Oxford comma policy (as one might have expected, since the publisher is Oxford University Press).

I signed anyway, because what the heck. Technically I am now committed to a condition that is nonsense because it is not even phrased grammatically; but if it is truly nonsense, no one can enforce it. And if it isn't (that is, if common sense is used to interpret the coordination), there is no problem.

I have left comments open below; but please put commas after at least after coordinates 1 thru n -2 in any n-element coordination.

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34 Comments »

  1. Jonathan said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Eats, Shoots, and Leaves?

  2. bobolinq said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    I'm curious why you frame this as an issue of grammaticality. If the phrase were spoken, it would be understood as a "4-member nominal coordination." It has been written in a way that flouts typographical conventions for representing such phrases. But if the presence or absence of the Oxford comma (which I prefer to call the "terminal serial comma") is just an issue of typographical convention, not grammar, why is the presence or absence of any of the preceding commas a question of grammar?

    I mean this quite seriously, as I think that much peevology could be prevented if the peevologists were better able to distinguish between grammar, usage, style, and typographic convention. But I continue to wonder how to distinguish among these categories myself.

  3. Rubrick said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Negotiations between the war strikers and team owners are continuing into the night. It is hoped that a lockout can still be avoided.

  4. dr pepper said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    A clear case of farce majeure.

  5. Doug Sundseth said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Since the request was for plural commas, shouldn't that be, "Eats,, Shoots,, and Leaves"?

    Grice shall not be the bane of the joking classes. (Lame jokes, otoh….)

  6. ArthurDent said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    I wonder why war is in the singular and "strikes lockouts" in the plural. Even allowing for the commas one would think that it would be preferable to say "any wars, strikes, lockouts," or alternatively, "any war, strike, lockout." Maybe they are talking about "war strikes, lockouts." It might mean that rights shall revert if they we have a war, but not if hit by a sudden "war strike."

    It just seems like a lawyer trying to bill their time while performing biological functions.

  7. Andrew said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    Surely the assumption that there is no such thing as a war strikes lockout is a doubtful one, given the ingenuity of British headline writers. If, say, workers were prevented from working because of a shortage of materials caused by hostile military action, would not that be a war strikes lockout?

  8. Jonathan said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    How do you parse the construction: "I signed anyway, because what the heck" ?

  9. Jim said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    I would have just written commas in before signing the document. ;)

    I generally think of the Oxford comma vs. its absence as a matter of prosody, not one that generally affects semantics. If anybody can produce a counterexample I would be very interested to see it.

  10. Grep Agni said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    @jim:

    The classic example is "I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand."

  11. Tim Silverman said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    This sort of thing is fairly standard in lists in legal prose, in order to avoid some kinds of ambiguity (or wrangling over ambiguity), I believe.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    bobolinq, if I read that aloud as written, it would not sound like a 4-member nominal coordination, but like a 2-member coordination, with the first member being ungrammatical. Only if I read it through and mentally added commas, and thus put in pauses to go with the commas that aren't there, would it sound like a 4-member nominal coordination.

  13. Jim said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    @Grep: Haha, okay, fair enough. Although that example relies on actually changing the parsing, from a three-element list to an appositive phrase. Are there any cases where "X, Y and Z" is still clearly a list, but means something different than "X, Y, and Z"? (Even better, make it a four-element list: "I would like to thank my editor, my parents, God and Ayn Rand" can't be read differently in the same way as the first example.)

  14. bobolinq said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    Ellen K., I guess my point is that no one would read these words aloud without mentally interposing the missing commas. But if one read it as a 2-member coordination, would the first member really be ungrammatical, as opposed to nonsensical? Suppose, instead of "war-strikes-lockout," the first member were "frabbywhoozit," so that the phrase at issue read "connected with any frabbywhoozit or disasters"—is that ungrammatical?

    Perhaps I'm confusing grammar with syntax, and that's where I'm going wrong. If "ungrammatical" is broad enough to mean "incomprehensible because including meaningless words," then I guess there is a way in which the original sentence is ungrammatical.

    Tim Silverman, I am a lawyer, and I would deny that this type of thing is common in legal prose. In even the worst-drafted contracts, lists tend to include all commas but the terminal serial comma, whose inclusion is variable. This is a clause drafted by an idiot.

  15. Bloix said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    I have frequently seen this sort of non-punctuation of series in insurance "binders" (preliminary contracts that are precursors to final contract wordings) drafted in England. I've never attempted to determine the reasons for it but apparently it's accepted usage – perhaps to avoid the very common ambiguity created by the lack of consensus over the Oxfod comma.

  16. Alexey Romanov said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

    I like that apparently a war may not be "circumstances beyond the Publisher's reasonable control". I understand strikes and lockouts: a lawyer might claim a strike is not beyond the Publisher's control, because they could stop it by agreeing to the strikers' terms. But how is Oxford University Press supposed to control a war?

  17. NW said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    Ellen K. is right: without commas you start reading it with the intonation appropriate to parsing a structure of N + N, then either [N N] N or [N N] N, because English allows those, and till you've got to the end of the structure you don't know how to semantically assign and relate the nouns. When at the N N N level it still makes no sense you take in the 'or' and have to abandon the parsing you've started. You're only three words in, so it's at about the limit where you can keep multiple parsings in your head without discomfiture, but still.

    The job might be eased by the plural on 'strikes': in normal English, plural nouns (except 'sports') aren't used as modifiers of nouns. However, this is contract/legal English, and it's much more common there, so you'd just swallow up 'strikes lockouts' as some kind of jargon.

    I think it's particularly exacerbated by the felicity of 'war strikes': this sounds entirely plausible, so you start building scaffolding for some kind of N N N structure.

  18. John Baker said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    I suspect that an earlier provision in the agreement said something like "The Publisher agrees to reprint or reissue the Work, and if it fails to do so, rights will revert to you." Then there is a carve-out from that: No rights shall revert "if it is not possible to reprint or reissue the Work for reasons connected with any war strikes lockouts or circumstances beyond the Publisher's reasonable control." Note that this is a smaller carve-out than would have applied if commas had been used: Then you would have been out of luck (no reprint or reissue and no rights reversion) if there were reasons connected with a war, strikes, or lockouts, but now you only have to worry about war strikes lockouts, which rarely occur. You're better off! Of course you signed!

    Of course, there's the other part of the carve-out, which applies in any case: "circumstances beyond the Publisher's reasonable control." That's so broad that it doesn't much matter whether you have war strikes lockouts or not. The point remains that you are no worse off for the commas being absent.

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    @Jonathan: ". . . because what the heck" is a perfectly good verbless subordinate clause, it seems to me, just as "What the heck" is a perfectly good verbless exclamation on its own.

  20. comixminx said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 4:21 am

    I am also not a lawyer, and I appreciate that bobolinq is, but I did find this to back up my impression that there are lawyerly precedents for the extreme lack of commas.

    '…the verbal excesses that appeared in the “repairing” covenant which
    gave rise to litigation in the English case of Ravenseft Properties Ltd v Davstone (Holdings) Ltd [1979]:

    "[The tenant shall] when where and so often as occasion requires well and sufficiently … repair renew rebuild uphold support sustain maintain pave purge scour cleanse glaze empty amend and keep the premises and every part thereof… and all floors walls columns roofs canopies lifts and escalators … shafts stairways fences pavements forecourts drains sewers ducts flues conduits wires cables gutters soil and other pipes tanks cisterns pumps and other water and sanitary apparatus thereon with all needful and necessary amendments whatsoever …".

    . . .'As you will know, this traditional style is not unique to English law and
    practice. It is found in all countries where English is the language of the law. One Australian lease which crossed my desk some time ago featured a tenant’s repairing covenant – one single sentence – containing 424 words. If you looked hard you would find 2 commas, but no other punctuation. (Lack of punctuation is a hallmark of traditional legal drafting.)'

    Link here – NB it's a PDF.

    Of course, the reason why there are no commas in one part and reasonable commas in another part could be down to that good ol' standby of multiple authorship…

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    I've never attempted to determine the reasons for it but apparently it's accepted usage – perhaps to avoid the very common ambiguity created by the lack of consensus over the Oxfod comma.

    I'd say pure laziness. There is a consensus amongst sensible people about the Oxford comma. You put it in obligatorily if there would be ambiguity without it, and it's optional in all other cases.

  22. readyreckoner said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    This is traditional legal drafting style. I was once told that it was intended to prevent interpositions, though I can't quite see how it would do that. It isn't currently recommended, but you still see it a lot, particularly in property-related documents.

    If there were commas elsewhere, it's probably because the other clauses were drafted from scratch, whereas this one was lifted from a previous document. Lawyers never draft from scratch if they can copy from somewhere else. It gives them a (perhaps false) sense of assurance that the formula they are using will work. Legal documents shouldn't rely on magic words, but in practice they do.

  23. Andrew Clegg said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    comixminx is right, this is quite widespread in British legal writing at least. I asked my solicitor about it while buying a house — the contract contained many of the bizarre un-comma'ed lists like the one comixminx quotes.

    He said it was because too many disputes over the years had got mired in arguments about the effect commas had on the meanings of sentences, so eventually the lawyers just started leaving them out.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    I'm not sure if the author linked to by comixminx (apparently Australian) is excluding the U.S. from his list of "all countries where English is the language of the law," or is aware of U.S. evidence that I've never personally noticed. Although maybe I'm not comma-sensitive because I don't recall noticing this over the years in documents generated by London solicitors. But my need to read such London-drafted documents has been sporadic, and perhaps I was too distracted by other dialect-specific features that caught my eye like "whilst" and "for the avoidance of doubt."

  25. Haamu said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    Of course, while I favor the Oxford comma, it can introduce ambiguity, too. If the classic example were altered to

    I would like to thank God, Ayn Rand, and my parents.

    you might have to wonder if you were looking at a list or an appositive. A lot of people these days seem to think Ayn Rand is God.

  26. Mark Liberman said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Are there scholars who study the history of legal practice, including things like this omission of commas in (certain lists in) contracts? There must be plenty of historical material for study, and it would be an interesting opportunity to study the spread of textual culture in a quantitative way.

  27. Ellen said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Bobolinq, ungrammatical because "war strikes lockouts" would be an ungrammatical noun phrase. When one noun modifies the other, the modifying noun needs to be singular. (At least, that's what my grammar sense tells me. Others may differ.) So, "war strike lockouts" would be okay, but not "war strikes lockouts".

  28. dr pepper said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    Not sure if i've posted about this before in this forum, but i'd really like to see the creation of a "Laypersons' Legal Review Committee". It would be like a grand jury, except that legal professionals would be excluded. The members would read every contract within their designated geographical area, and each would seperately write a summary. If the summaries do not substantially agree, the contract will have to be rewritten. On a 3d failure, the writers will be sanctioned.

  29. Nick B said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    The carve-out in John Baker's comment would be a fine addition to the eggcorn database.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Can Nick B. explain his comment about carve-out as used by John Baker? It sounded perfectly idiomatic in context to me, but then again I'm a lawyer.

    [(myl) I believe he suspected carve-out of being a re-analysis of "caveat". I wondered myself, but a bit of web search suggested that it's a common legal term of art.]

    For myl's question, my sense is that most legal historians operate at what they would think of as a more exalted and abstract level than the history of comma-deployment style, but he could ask over at the Penn law faculty and see. The one subset of law professors other than the historians as such who might be worth consulting are specialists in mergers & acquisitions and similar corporate/financial matters. The drafting state-of-the-art in that area is constantly changing, so specialists are often interested in keeping abreast of the evolution in real time. (In general I think the rate of change in drafting style varies radically from specialty to specialty within American law, sometimes by orders of magnitude. Good disproof of any sort of glottochronology that relies on an unproven axiom of a uniform and constant rate of change.)

    [(myl) I'm not sure whether this kind of history would have any interest for legal scholars -- I suspect the interest would be indirect at best -- but it looks like an interesting way to study cultural diffusion, over fairly long periods of time, in a data-rich setting.]

  31. comixminx said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 4:28 am

    @ J. W. Brewer – the PDF I linked to does also have examples of US usage of this comma-less list, yes. I suspect that the reason that you may not have come across it much in your US or UK legal interactions is probably down to your own point further down the page:

    In general I think the rate of change in drafting style varies radically from specialty to specialty within American law, sometimes by orders of magnitude

    I'd recommend reading the PDF in any case, if only for the fantastic examples arguing for the usage of plain language in all legal documents, such as:

    To take a stark example: some years ago, British Post redrafted its redirection-of-mail forms. Before the re-draft, there was an 87% error rate when customers filled out the form. Royal Mail was spending over £10,000 a week to deal with complaints and to reprocess the incorrect forms. The new form reduced the error rate dramatically – so much so that Royal Mail saved £500,000 in just the next nine months.

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 5:23 am

    British Post?

  33. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    @Haamu: a deity, no. A prophet, on the other hand…

  34. Michael Morgan said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    This comment will come too late for anyone to read it, but for the record:

    I guess there aren't many international lawyers reading Language Log. The absence of commas in British legal documents is a well-known and much-derided feature. When I practiced in London, I surmised that it was just a guild thing. They did it in order to make the contracts unreadable except by lawyers. But I was told no, there had been many cases brought over commas, and the practice developed to leave them out. I think the technique is dying – it should.

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