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I'm in the process of purchasing a house and reading through the contract, I can't find a single instance of the comma. (As if legalese wasn't hard enough to read already!)

This includes the segregation of sentence clauses, separating lists, following certain leading adverbs (however, therefore, etc.), etc.

Are commas considered superfluous in legal documents? Perhaps just property documents?

  • Oooh, oooh, I found one.. Typo? – James Webster Dec 9 '13 at 20:10
  • I toyed with whether or not legal was a suitable tag. On a mobile device, so more difficult to read tag wikis – James Webster Dec 9 '13 at 20:19
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    Don't suppose you could scan a paragraph or two? I'm very curious to see how a legal document can get away with flouting the rules of written English. – Mari-Lou A Dec 9 '13 at 20:19
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    The answer, of course, is that arguing over interpretation of such documents is how lawyers make their money. – Andrew Leach Dec 9 '13 at 20:25
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    At one time punctuation was held to be meaningless in English wills; I don't know whether that ruling was extended to other instruments. But lawyers adhere to the "If it ain't broke don't fix it" principle; if a form of language has been held to have a particular meaning, lawyers will not depart from it in any particular, lest it be held that the difference signals some different meaning. In the US, at least, established form is called 'boilerplate', because it withstands the strongest possible pressure. I imagine most of the language in real estate transactions is boilerplate. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 9 '13 at 21:32
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Commas are regarded as dangerous in legal documents - they introduce ambiguity in the meaning.

"The agreement shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms , unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” https://secure.globeadvisor.com/servlet/ArticleNews/story/RTGAM/20060806/wr-rogers07

The court decided that the second comma meant the 5year period was an optional clause. The customer was able to change the term after one year and it cost Rogers telecom a couple of million $$$

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    IANAL but... to be honest, it seems to me that the problem there is not ambiguity, but rather that the commas were wrong. The interpretation that the comma-enclosed phrase could be 'removed' without affecting the main sentence seems like the clearest interpretation of the commas? That's not "they're dangerous"; that's "if you get it wrong, you change the meaning". Well, no shit! – Reinstate Monica --Brondahl-- Jan 2 '16 at 8:15
  • Fathom Rogers telecom could then terminate many contracts with the same boilerplate. Courts do not have to hold legalese to the letter. It's utterly ridiculous they'd do here, unless there were ulterior motives or a jury of principled grammarians. – vectory Aug 15 at 19:44
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It all depends on context. Take a contract to order 32 blue white and red sweaters at a total cost of $200. You could potentially end up with:

  • 32 sweaters that contain all three colors.
  • 32 sweaters of each color. (total of 96 sweaters)
  • 32 blue sweaters and 32 white and red sweaters. (total of 64 sweaters)

With or without a comma that is just ambiguous, which is really what is to be avoided at all costs in legal documents. If I were the manufacturer of the sweaters it would be cheapest to just send you the least amount of sweaters. If you meant either of the other two you get shorted at least 32 sweaters, not to mention the ones you receive aren't the correct color combination.

The signed contract is considered to be the final copy, as it is signed, witnessed, etc. Just because you discussed what the ambiguous clause meant does not necessarily mean that the court will enforce that, as it is hard to prove.

  • A supply contract would list the items as bullet points. – Andrew Leach Dec 10 '13 at 8:44
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Commas are important. Their intention is to assist in the reading of complex or long sentences. Leave them out and the sentence could be ambiguous so that two people could easily sign something and find our later they disagree on what they signed. "Eats, shoots and leaves" is the story of a cowboy in a bar. "Eats shoots and leaves" is the story of a herbivor in a forest. If you're a lawyer writing about a cowboy and you decide to leave out the commas then you introduce the possibility of misunderstandings which you could have excluded by the addition of well-placed commas.

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