Another Comma Cautionary Tale

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably don’t need any further warnings about confusion caused by commas. Well, you’re getting one anyway.

A reader told me about this post on the blog of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s about last fall’s Ninth Circuit opinion in Hamdan. It involves the language of a statute, not a contract, but it still offers a cautionary tale.

Here’s the language at issue:

would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law

Does the closing modifier (“if such disclosure …”) modify just the second “would disclose” phrase, or does it also modify the first one too? How significant is absence of a comma before “if such disclosure”? And what’s the significance, if any, of the comma before “or”? I have no freaking idea.

As a drafter, the last thing I want is to be embroiled in a dispute over commas. Such disputes allow those with little or no semantic acuity to be full of passionate intensity on the subject. The best way to avoid such disputes is not to ask commas to do any serious work for you. Don’t rely on commas. That is all.

If this has whetted your appetite for commas, you’ll get a bellyful from this article.

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.

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