Drafting Without Punctuation?

A participant at my recent seminar in Ottawa reminded me of something I’d never paid much attention to—the idea that one should draft without punctuation. It’s a hoary old notion that still lingers in Commonwealth jurisdictions. Here’s what an Australian text has to say on the subject (footnotes omitted):

Traditional legal drafting uses punctuation sparingly. This has been the practice from the earliest times. …

This approach probably reflects a belief among lawyers that statutes were largely unpunctuated when they left the drafter, and that any punctuation later added was done at the behest of the printer, not the author. This belief David Melinkoff has convincingly shown to be misconceived. It did lead, however, to the attitude, once prevalent judicially, that punctuation played little or no part in construing legal documents. …

But that is no longer the prevalent view. The modern style of legal drafting uses punctuation for the same reason as any other careful prose uses punctuation—to give guidance about meaning.

Peter Butt & Richard Castle, Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language 139–40 (2001)

But don’t be too quick to assume that the no-punctuation wackiness is behind us. I found this in a 2001 contract drafted in England:

[T]he headings and punctuation in this agreement are for convenience only and shall be ignored in its interpretation ….

And in this July 2009 post on Language Log, Geoff Pullum wrote of his puzzlement at encountering a lack of commas in a publishing contract he had been asked to sign.

Here’s my suggestion regarding punctuation: Use standard punctuation, but avoid structuring your language so that a lot is riding on the presence or absence of a comma. A disgruntled contract party might be inclined to fight over a comma, and tribunals have been known to ignore an inconvenient comma or attribute cosmic meaning to an insignificant comma.

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.