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 of Law, spotted what seems to be just such an example. It occurs, of all places, in the New York City Fire Department’s list of requirements for becoming a New York City firefighter.

Here’s the language at issue:

To be hired as a New York City Firefighter, you must:

  • By the date of appointment, have a four year high school diploma or its educational equivalent and at least 15 college semester credits earned as a result of satisfactory completion of course work at a college or university accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education or; full time military service with an honorable discharge; or 6 months of full time, satisfactory paid work experience;

Use of the two semi-colons suggests the following reading (although the first semi-colon is incorrectly placed after the “or” rather than before):

  • By the date of appointment, have (1) a four year high school diploma or its educational equivalent and at least 15 college semester credits earned as a result of satisfactory completion of course work at a college or university accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education, (2) full time military service with an honorable discharge, or (3) 6 months of full time, satisfactory paid work experience;

But is it really the case that if you have six months of appropriate work experience you don’t need a high-school diploma? Perhaps instead this is the intended meaning:

  • By the date of appointment, have a four year high school diploma or its educational equivalent and (1) at least 15 college semester credits earned as a result of satisfactory completion of course work at a college or university accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education, (2) full time military service with an honorable discharge, or (3) 6 months of full time, satisfactory paid work experience;

Perhaps someone familiar with the ways of the FDNY will enlighten us. In any event, the FDNY should make this language clearer. (While they’re at it, they should throw in some hyphens.)

By the way, Sean Gajewski is serious enough to be a regular reader of this blog and sharp enough to spot syntactic ambiguity. Someone offer the guy a job!

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For more on syntactic ambiguity, see MSCD chapter 11 or search this blog and the AdamsDrafting blog using the word “syntactic”.

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.