Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness: An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters
Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2010
11 Pages Posted: 4 Dec 2009
Date Written: December 1, 2009
This article uses an unpublished case interpreting New York’s animal cruelty law as an object lesson to teach why grammar matters. In People v. Walsh, 2008 WL 724724 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. Jan. 3, 2008), the court’s interpretation of the statute turned, in part, on the serial comma rule (sometimes called the “Oxford comma” rule). The court followed a mandatory approach to interpret the statute’s meaning, even though most contemporary grammar and style books make such use of a comma optional. One of the many benefits of using a case example to teach why grammar matters is that it focuses students on the expectations of an important legal reader: the judge who may be using her own understanding of grammar rules to interpret language in a statute. The article explores what can happen when the legislators drafting statutes and the courts interpreting them may be operating on different sets of rules – in this case, rules of grammar. It then uses this exploration to recommend ways of using the case and statute as a teaching tool to impress upon students, among other lessons, the importance of avoiding ambiguity in legal writing.
Keywords: grammar, legal writing, serial comma, punctuation
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