Grammar can have a great impact on how something is understood, or misunderstood. In the legal world, grammar can cost a case and money – hence the importance of legal grammar rules. When it comes to grammar and legal translation, the risks can be even higher. Language is powerful, but only if it is used correctly. Recently a company in Maine learned how a forgotten comma could result in an undesired outcome for a lawsuit, and cost a fair amount of money.
Commas, the Eternally Misunderstood Punctuation Marks
As defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2017), a comma “marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.” However, commas are often a misunderstood grammatical element. Many people do not know how to use them properly, and often just place them around without paying attention to grammar rules. As they often say, commas have the power of saving lives. The placement of a comma in a sentence can in fact change its whole meaning. Let’s look at the following example:
The defendant, who looked apologetic, was found guilty.
The defendant who looked apologetic was found guilty.
If we look at the first sentence the main message we take away is that the defendant was found guilty. In this case we see the non-restrictive relative clause “who looked apologetic” between commas. This indicates that the fact he looked apologetic did not change the sentence, it was just a piece if information. However, in the second example the same clause appears without commas, thus making the information “who looked apologetic” essential to the meaning of the sentence. Now it seems like there were two defendants, and it was the one who looked apologetic who was found guilty while the other walked away free.
While the above statements might only confuse someone reading about the outcome of a case, best practices for legal grammar rules exist to help prevent uncertainty during a case that could result from improper punctuation and sentence structure.
Legal Grammar Rules and The Use of Commas in Legal Cases
There are many resources on best practices for legal grammar rules, due to the ambiguity improper grammar can bring to a legal proceeding. Bearing in mind that the proper use of commas is paramount in any type of writing, there are in fact some cases in which this small punctuation sign can result in a totally different outcome in the courtroom.
One of the latest examples of the tricky use of commas in legal cases is regarding a recent lawsuit in Maine. Delivery drivers from Oakhurst Dairy, a local milk and cream company, were engaged in litigation with their employers for some time over whether they were entitled to overtime pay. A U.S. court of appeals determined on March 13th that Maine’s overtime law was grammatically ambiguous in some of its clauses. Due to that ambiguity, the drivers from Oakhurst Dairy won the appeal.
All the fuss over this case originated on the use of what is known as the “serial comma” or the “Oxford comma”. This type of comma is used before the coordinating conjunction when three or more items are listed in order to clarify the meaning of a sentence. How does it come into play with Oakhurst Dairy?
According to state law, the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay in Maine:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods
Oxford Comma rules state that there should have been a comma between “shipment” and “or”. The lack of the comma in this case makes it difficult to determine if “packing for shipment or distribution” is a single activity or, if “packing for shipment or distribution” is an activity separate from just “distribution”. In the former situation, only packing done for shipment and distribution would be exempt for overtime pay, while in the latter packing for shipment would be exempt, as would the activity of distribution.
The court’s final ruling was in favor of the delivery drivers who argued that the lack of a comma meant “packing for shipment or distribution” was one action. Therefore, the drivers were entitled to overtime pay for their distribution work. The state of Maine on the other hand, learned an important lesson in legal grammar rules.
The Maine case is not the only one to have proved the importance of commas in legal cases. Back in 2006, a dispute in Canada over a comma in a 14 page long contract signed between Rogers Communications of Toronto and Bell Aliant cost 1 million Canadian dollars. It would seem that paying attention in grammar class has become essential to avoid potential lawsuits.
The Importance of Commas in Legal Document Translation
There are several cases in which a legal translator might be needed for international or multilingual lawsuits. In such cases, linguists must be aware of the different uses of grammar and punctuation in the languages with which they work.
For instance, following the example of the Maine case, while English requires placing a comma before a coordinating conjunction, Spanish forbids it. So, along with a deep knowledge of both countries’ legal systems, which may also differ in many points, the legal translator must know his or her way around the grammar of both languages perfectly. That way he or she will make sure that the outcome of the trial is the same no matter where the defendant is geographically located.
Written by Laura Jiménes Bolé
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