Friday, March 17, 2017

Expensive punctuation...

Expensive punctuation...  Consider this sentence, lifted from a Maine state law:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.
That sentence defines what occupations are not eligible for overtime pay.  A recent dispute centered on the meaning of that sentence.  In everyday English usage, there are two possible interpretations of that sentence because there is no comma between "packing for shipment" and "or distribution". 

A US appeals court has ruled that the sentence above is ambiguous, and therefore a labor dispute should be decided in favor of the employees rather than the employer.  More examples of such ambiguous legislation or contracts here.

Reading about this reminded me (rather too forcefully) of one of my least favorite aspects of executive life, back in the bad old days when I was still one of them.  I spent a ridiculous amount of time reading all the language in contracts, including such details as whether to use the Oxford comma or not in any particular sentence.  On a large contract (as the examples linked above illustrate), a large amount of money might ride on possible interpretations of contract language.  What really got me going on this issue was discovering language that was almost certainly intended to deceive or trick us, in draft contracts coming from large multinational corporations we were considering doing business with.  It was easy to tell if these were deliberate constructions or not: we would simply red-line the language in question and propose an unambiguous alternate.  If the other company pushed back on our change ... then we knew it was deliberate.  I consider that dishonest behavior myself, and I see no need for that in a legitimate business contract.  Given what I saw, however, I have to conclude that mine was a minority viewpoint – at least with many large corporations.  There were exceptions, thankfully.  And the small businesses I dealt with never seemed to have this issue.  I suspect it has to do with the point at which a corporation becomes large enough to have a permanent legal staff – they seemed to believe that such trickery was part of their job description...

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