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

The Value of Identifying Different Kinds of Ambiguity

I noticed this post on ContractsProf Blog. It involves a fight over what “the fee” meant in a contract. Did it mean this fee or that fee? Ah, says I, that’s an instance of antecedent ambiguity. That’s where you allude to something mentioned elsewhere in a contract, but it’s arguably unclear what you’re actually referring to. See this post and … Read More

The Serial Comma Can Cause Ambiguity

The serial comma is the comma used immediately before the and or or preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. I wrote about the serial comma in this 2010 post, but I revisit it now because something caught my eye in Garner’s Modern American Usage. Here’s what it says on page 676: Whether to include the serial comma has sparked … Read More

A New Case About a Subset of “Or” Ambiguity

[Revised 6:30 p.m. EDT, October 13, 2012, to reflect suggestions by Rodney Huddleston.] Thanks to a recent case, I stumbled on a subset of ambiguity associated with or. Consider Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 1705.35 (West): Instruments and documents providing for the acquisition, mortgage, or disposition of property of a limited liability company are valid and binding upon the company … Read More

Ambiguity in a Michigan Statute

A reader told me about this article on Bloomberg BNA. It’s about a recent opinion of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that deals with syntactic ambiguity in a Michigan statutes: The [Michigan Medical Marihuana Act] prohibits “disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau” against a “qualifying patient.” But the Sixth Circuit opted not … Read More

The Parameters of Expert Testimony on Ambiguity

When someone wants to discuss my giving expert testimony in a dispute over the meaning of part of a contract, it’s a safe bet that the confusion over meaning will involve one or other (or both) of the following kinds of ambiguity: Syntactic ambiguity, which arises from uncertainty over what part of a sentence a given phrase modifies, or what … Read More

Yet Another Instance of Semantic Ambiguity: “Salary”

The case of Citgo Petroleum Corp. v. Ranger Enters., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58676 (Conn. Mar. 17, 2009), revolved around whether, as used in the context of a separation agreement, the word salary included bonuses. A careful drafter would want to avoid any confusion on that score. By the way, I don’t intend to devote a post to each instance … Read More

Expert Testimony and Ambiguity

Recently I wanted to find out more about use of expert testimony to resolve contract ambiguity. (Remember, ambiguity arises when a contract provision is capable of expressing two or more inconsistent meanings.) So I consulted Walter R. Lancaster & Damian D. Capozzola, Expert Witnesses in Civil Trials. I learned that “it remains a basis for objection [to expert testimony] that … Read More

Arranging the Parts of a Sentence

[Updated 2:30 p.m. ET to incorporate Vance’s version (see his comment).] Below are five versions of a sentence, with the only difference being the order in which the components are arranged. I listed the first four in the order in which I preferred them at the time of posting, from most preferred to least. The fifth is the version proposed … Read More

Principles of Interpretation Aren’t “Rules of Grammar”!

A tipster with a sense of humor sent me a link to an opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Borth v. Borth, No. A21-0571, 2022 WL 90612 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2022) (here). This dispute involves our old friend, syntactic ambiguity. I’m not about to go into the details, because to stay sane, I have to ration the … Read More