Syntactic Ambiguity in NYC's Firefighter Eligibility Requirements?

Syntactic ambiguity is ambiguity that arises due to uncertainty regarding which part of a phrase a given word modifies, or which part of a sentence a given phrase modifies. Syntactic ambiguity can arise in any kind of writing, and examples occurring outside of contracts can be instructive for contract drafters. Reader Sean Gajewski, a third-year student at Hofstra University School … Read More

A Little Syntactic Ambiguity, A Lot of Time and Money Wasted

The opinion just issued by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Anderson v. Hess Corporation (go here for a PDF copy) primarily concerns the phrase “drilling or reworking operations”. It occurs several times in the five mineral leases at issue. Does “drilling” constitute a noun, or is it an adjective modifying “operations”? In other words, the question posed was, … Read More

More Syntactic Ambiguity: The Serial Comma

This item at The Volokh Conspiracy noted that the “serial comma” has been appearing less and less frequently in the New York Times. At Legal Blog Watch, Eric Lipman pointed out that a Volokh commenter had suggested that the serial comma is important for clarity in contracts. Here’s the entire comment, posted by “Mark”: I think we should at least all … Read More

More Syntactic Ambiguity

The ever-alert Steven Sholk has informed me of another legal opinion discussing syntactic ambiguity. This one was issued by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and addresses how much of a provision in an insurance policy was modified by a closing modifier. (Click here for a copy of the opinion.) I’m not particularly interested in what the court held, because … Read More

A Texas Court’s Take on Syntactic Ambiguity

Reader Patrick Grant told me about a newsletter describing a Texas case involving syntactic ambiguity. (Syntactic ambiguity derives from uncertainty over which part of a sentence a given word or phrase modifies.) The case in question was Consolidated Reinforcement v. Carothers Executive Homes, 271 S.W.3d 887 (Tex. App. 2008), a case before the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District. … Read More

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Syntactic Ambiguity—A Cautionary Tale

Reader Kazu brought to my attention the following language from the recently enacted Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (emphasis added): For purposes of this section, an unlawful employment practice occurs, with respect to discrimination in compensation in violation of this title, when a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice is adopted, when an individual becomes subject to a discriminatory compensation … Read More

Another Helping of Syntactic Ambiguity

My email in-box is overflowing with emails from Lexis notifying me of cases ostensibly relating to ambiguity. I fished from the torrent the following straightforward example of syntactic ambiguity. (Syntactic ambiguity arises out of the order in which words appear and how they relate to each other.) It’s from Active Zones of America, LLC v. SDV (USA) Inc., 2007 U.S. … Read More

Illinois Case Provides Great Example of Syntactic Ambiguity

A recent Illinois case, Regency Commercial Assocs., LLC v. Lopax, Inc., 2007 Ill. App. LEXIS 476 (Ill. App. Ct. May 4, 2007), provides a great example of how syntactic ambiguity can really make a mess of a contractual relationship. (Click here for a copy of this case.) The predecessor of the plaintiff Regency sold to the defendant Lopax land to … Read More

The U.S. Supreme Court Fails a Syntactic-Ambiguity Test

Drafters can learn three things from courts screwing up analysis of ambiguity. First, you learn what ambiguous text looks like. Second, you learn that fights over ambiguous contract language are messy and expensive. And third, you learn that too many courts are incapable of analyzing ambiguous contract language in a way that makes sense; see this 2020 blog post for … Read More

Another Syntactic-Ambiguity Cautionary Tale (As If We Really Needed One): The Supreme Court’s Opinion in Lockhart

Here we go again. You might recall that syntactic ambiguity involves uncertainty over what part of a sentence a phrase modifies, or what part of a phrase a word modifies. If you want a whole bunch of examples of syntactic ambiguity, just search for “syntactic” on this blog. Well, the most recent Supreme Court opinion, Lockhart v. U.S. (opinion PDF … Read More