A New Source of Ambiguity in References to Time?

My daughter invited me to go a comedy club. Killjoy that I am, I had never been to a comedy club before.

But my hermit tendencies aren’t what this blog post about. Instead, before the show, my daughter emailed me the following fine print from the ticket:

You must present the original credit card used to make this purchase at the venue’s box-office or point of entry up to one hour prior to the event or after the doors open (unless otherwise noted) in order to pick up your ticket(s).

Probably as a result of having been overexposed to my enthralling interests, my daughter is no slouch when it comes to semantic acuity. Regarding the quoted language, she said, “Does this mean … within 1 hour of the show starting? Or that you can’t pick up the tickets after 6:30?” (The show started at 7:30 p.m.)

I think she’s right, that if you state a point in time by saying up to X [unit(s) of time] before [event], it’s not clear whether the period for taking the action in question is measured backward from the event or forward up the the point in time.

This isn’t covered in MSCD, and I don’t recall seeing this kind of ambiguity in the wild. What do you think?

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

7 thoughts on “A New Source of Ambiguity in References to Time?”

  1. I agree that it creates an ambiguity. I have seen this phrasing in order cancellation provisions (“Seller may cancel its order up to 30 days before the scheduled delivery date.”) and automatic renewal provisions (“The contract will automatically renew unless notice of non-renewal is given up to 30 days before the renewal date.”).

  2. I see a somewhat different ambiguity here. Common sense dictates that you have to pick up your ticket before the performance begins, so “measuring backwards” seems what the vendor had in mind. However, the desire to save space gets the better of them, since the “one hour before” looks like it applies to two different events, the start of the show or the time when the doors open (typically a half hour before the show). So if the doors open at 7, does that mean you have to get your ticket by 6? Again, common sense suggests (though not as strongly) that they really mean the *later* of one hour before the show or *at the time* the doors open. But then again, common sense also suggests that if you’ve already charged your ticket to your card, you can pick it up any time you like before the box office closes. And, this being New York we’re talking about, there must be a law on the subject.

  3. The provision is a mess, but I would describe the problem Sydney found as ‘failure to specify whether the point (6:30) is the start point or the end point of the period’.

    Periods come in three kinds: (1) all of time forward to an endpoint; (2) all of time forward from a startpoint; and (3) all the time between a startpoint and an endpoint.

    If I remember my maths correctly, all of time is a ‘line’, a one-ended period is a ‘ray’ and a two-ended period is a ‘segment’.

    A separate problem with the structure of the provision is uncertainty whether the second period for card presentation is open-ended or closed-ended.


    You must present the card
    [1] up to one hour prior to the event or
    [2] [anytime] after the doors open.


    You must present the card
    [1] up to one hour prior to the event or
    [2] [up to one hour] after the doors open


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