Seeking Caselaw Featuring Antecedent Ambiguity

In this December 2011 post I wrote about a contract dispute caused by uncertainty over what the phrase “said cost” referred to.

On further reflection, I realized that we were dealing with a kind of ambiguity that I hadn’t written about previously. To get a better sense of the basis of that ambiguity, I contacted Geoff Pullum, co-editor of my linguistics reference work of choice, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Here’s part of what he had to say:

I think it’s about imprecision concerning choice of antecedents of anaphoric elements.  The issue is whether “said cost” refers back to “the cost” or to “half of the cost”.  That’s like which man the “he” refers to in this example: John can read Bill’s email.  He is furious.

You can’t tell, right?  Maybe Bill is furious because he found out John hacked in; maybe John is furious because of what he saw in Bill’s emails.

I think it likely that this kind of ambiguity—which I’ll be referring to as “antecedent ambiguity,” unless anyone has a better idea—has featured in many a lawsuit. I’d like to know of additional examples, to flesh out a discussion of the subject in the third edition of MSCD. I’ll do some exploratory searches on Westlaw, but if you know of any caselaw featuring language that exhibits antecedent ambiguity, I’d be please if you’d let me know about it.

By the way, I commend to you Geoff’s most recent post on Language Log, about the marketing slogan “Sofa King Low.”


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.

2 thoughts on “Seeking Caselaw Featuring Antecedent Ambiguity”

  1. For what it’s worth, novice patent claim drafters have to learn not to write claims with antecedent ambiguity (or as patent people put it, “lack of antecedent basis”).  

    As the USPTO’s Manual of Patent Examining Procedure explains:

    … The lack of clarity could arise where a claim refers to “said lever” or “the lever,” where the claim contains no earlier recitation or limitation of a lever and where it would be unclear as to what element the limitation was making reference. Similarly, if two different levers are recited earlier in the claim, the recitation of “said lever” in the same or subsequent claim would be unclear where it is uncertain which of the two levers was intended. A claim which refers to “said aluminum lever,” but recites only “a lever” earlier in the claim, is indefinite because it is uncertain as to the lever to which reference is made. [Extra paragraphing added]


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