The U.S. Supreme Court Dabbles in Part-Versus-the-Whole Ambiguity

In an opinion issued this week (here) the U.S. Supreme Court considered the alternative possible meanings of “not an.” Here’s the relevant passage:

Truth be told, the answer to the general question “What does ‘not an’ mean?” is “It depends”: The meaning of the phrase turns on its context. “Not an” sometimes means “not any,” in the way Novo claims. If your spouse tells you he is late because he “did not take a cab,” you will infer that he took no cab at all (but took the bus instead). If your child admits that she “did not read a book all summer,” you will surmise that she did not read any book (but went to the movies a lot). And if a sports-fan friend bemoans that “the New York Mets do not have a chance of winning the World Series,” you will gather that the team has no chance whatsoever (because they have no hitting). But now stop a moment. Suppose your spouse tells you that he got lost because he “did not make a turn.” You would understand that he failed to make a particular turn, not that he drove from the outset in a straight line. Suppose your child explains her mediocre grade on a college exam by saying that she “did not read an assigned text.” You would infer that she failed to read a specific book, not that she read nothing at all on the syllabus. And suppose a lawyer friend laments that in her last trial, she “did not prove an element of the offense.” You would grasp that she is speaking not of all the elements, but of a particular one. The examples could go on and on, but the point is simple enough: When it comes to the meaning of “not an,” context matters.

The ambiguity at issue is an example of my favorite kind of ambiguity—uncertainty over whether a single member of a group is being referred to, or the entire group. I use the phrase “the part versus the whole” to refer to this sort of ambiguity.

I invite you, dear reader, to suggest contract language that (1) is analogous to the examples cited in the court’s opinion and (2) is ambiguous.

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.