Neal Goldfarb has unleashed on the world this post comparing how the judicial principles of interpretation that have a bearing on syntactic ambiguity compare with how English is actually understood.
It looks rigorous as heck, but I haven’t read it yet. Why not? Well, it is quite long, but the main reason is that Neal’s a litigator and I’m a contract drafter. Allow me to explain.
Because Neal’s a litigator, his principal interest is, presumably, trying to make sense out of contract language that was sufficiently confusing that it resulted in a dispute. It follows that he’s particularly interested in the arbitrary “rules” that judges invoke to resolve ambiguity. He’s made a point of being quite a student of linguistics, as is evident from his blog posts.
By contrast, my needs are very different, and so is my approach. For purposes of drafting contracts, I just want to stay out of trouble. Although I act as expert witness in contract disputes, my principal responsibility is avoiding messes rather than clearing them up. For that, I don’t need to debate the relative merits of alternative interpretations. Instead, I have to be able to recognize, and eliminate, those alternative interpretations that are potentially troublesome. That still leaves room for mind-boggling complexity, but it doesn’t involve the sort of analysis on display in Neal’s post.