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Ambiguity exercises

In my contract-drafting course, we do a lot of short, in-class ambiguity ex­er­cises. As the last class of the semester was ending a few years ago, a student came up to me and said, “I hate you.” (He was smiling.) I asked why; he re­spon­ded, “Because after all the am­bi­guity exercises that we did, now I see ambiguities every­where!”

I did a fist-pump and exclaimed, “Yes!!” I said that this was exactly what I had hoped:  Now, in his law practice, the student would be more likely to spot am­bi­gu­ities in the contracts that he drafted and reviewed.

In the exercises below, all emphasis is mine unless otherwise indicated.

Table of contents

1 Affordable Care Act

TEXT: (Adapted from a comment by a guest on the first hour of the Diane Rehm Show, Apr. 12, 2016): Before the Affordable Care Act, “if you had a pre-existing condition such as breast cancer, you could not be covered.”

QUESTION: Does this mean that before the ACA, if you had a pre-existing condition insurance carriers: (A) were not permitted to offer coverage, or (B) might choose to deny coverage?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to make it clear that the intended meaning was (B).

2 Awash in pleasure

TEXT: From a Maureen Dowd column in the NY Times, March 5, 2016: “Like Bill Clinton, Trump talks and talks to crowds. They feed his narcissism, and in turn, he creates an intimacy even in an arena that leaves both sides awash in pleasure.

DISCUSSION: The italicized part of this quotation arguably has two meanings: Both sides are left awash in pleasure by —

  1. An arena.
  2. The intimacy that Trump creates even in an arena.

EXERCISE: Rewrite the italicized portion of the Dowd quote to be clear that she intended the second meaning.

3 B.C. comic strip

4 Bid deadline

TEXT: Bids may be submitted until March 1.

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify

5 Book of Common Prayer

From the Book of Common Prayer (1979) of the Episcopal Church, pp. 361, 377 (Eucharistic Prayer A with the Proper Preface for Lent):

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin ….

QUESTION: Ignoring the theology and christology, to what does the phrase “Through Jesus Christ our Lord” refer to:
(A) The people giving thanks through Jesus; or
(B) the Father Almighty creating heaven and earth through Jesus?

ASSIGNMENT: Revise the second sentence so that the passage refers clearly to choice A above. (Hint: Adding three words to the beginning would be one way to do it.)

6 Burglars and bystander

From the Houston Chronicle, Aug. 22, 2016 “Police apprehended two men accused of burglarizing two homes on the North Side with the help of a civilian who chased them Monday afternoon.”

QUESTION: Did the citizen help the police, or the burglars?

QUESTION: Did the citizen chase the burglars, or the police?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

7 Coach D’Antoni and OKC

From Jonathan Feigen, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has high praise for Betes Bros (Chron.com Mar. 7, 2018).

OKLAHOMA CITY – Before Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni could begin his media availability on Tuesday he wanted to praise an Oklahoma City-based group, Betes Bros, an organization that helps people with diabetes that contributed after Hurricane Harvey.

QUESTION: Who exactly contributed after Hurricane Harvey — A) Betes Bros, or B) people with diabetes?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

8 Comma missing, worth $5 million

TEXT: From O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2017) (reversing grant of partial summary judgment to Oakhurst):

  • “Specifically, Exemption F [of Maine’s overtime law] states that the protection of the overtime law does not apply to: ¶ 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.” Id. at 71 (streamlined).
  • “We conclude, however, that Exemption F is ambiguous, even after we take account of the relevant interpretive aids and the law’s purpose and legislative history. For that reason, we conclude that, under Maine law, we must construe the exemption in the narrow manner that the drivers favor, as doing so furthers the overtime law’s remedial purposes.” Id. at 72.

(The opinion goes on for 20 more pages elaborating on the reasoning that’s summarized in the above excerpts.)

This reinforces the need for drafters to try to spot these issues—and write around them—on the front end, so as to avoid having these awkward and expensive conversations later.

UPDATE: The Maine legislature revised the statute to replace the commas with semicolons, thusly:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

That led to Oakhurst Dairy settling the overtime lawsuit with its drivers. See Daniel Victor, Oxford Comma Dispute Is Settled as Maine Drivers Get $5 Million (NYTimes.com Feb. 9, 2018)

9 Costly medical care

TEXT:  “The [health-insurance] companies wanted to minimize the risk of losing money by paying for costly medical care for too many of their customers.” (From Reed Abelson, Trump’s Vow to Repeal Health Law Revives Talk of High-Risk Pools, at https://goo.gl/0OnBHK, NYTimes.com) .

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

10 Deadlines

EXERCISE: Rewrite the following to eliminate the ambiguities:

  1. Bids may be submitted until March 1.
  2. The lease expires at 12:00 a.m. on March 1.

11 Dog bite

Use one character to eliminate the ambiguity:

Passerby helps dog bite victim.

(Adapted from http://literarydevices.net/ambiguity)

12 Early retirement

TEXT: From a 2016 headline: “Houston Technology Center CEO To Retire Early Next Year” (He retired Feb. 1, 2017 after serving for ten years.)

QUESTION: Was the CEO going to retire, and the retirement was to take place in early 2017? Or was he to retire in 2017, which was earlier than had been expected?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify

13 Electric chair

TEXT: The judge sentenced the killer to die in the electric chair for the second time.

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

14 Elephant takes a selfie?

From a tweet at https://goo.gl/Q5LVf1: “Man trampled to death by elephant trying to take a SELFIE”

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

15 From President Trump

From a presidential tweet of April 3, 2017 at https://goo.gl/4tjl90: “Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends. …” (Hat tip: Chris Richardson.)

QUESTION: What exactly was Fox and Friends’s role here?

16 Fukushima

TEXT – from the New York Times: “… Carl Pillitteri, who was working as a field engineer on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station in Japan when a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the island in 2011, resulting in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl; it left some 18,490 people dead or missing ….”

QUESTION: What left some 18,490 people dead or missing — the earthquake, the tsunami, or the nuclear disaster? EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

17 Gift to a married couple

TEXT: I will give you and your husband $1 million.

QUESTION: How much total will the couple get — $1 million, or $2 million?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

18 Going to Oregon

Consider the following sentence:

The family went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.

Rewrite the sentence (consider using parentheses and dashes, too) to be clear that the family went to Oregon with:

  • one person
  • two persons
  • three persons

(Adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Unresolved_ambiguity)

19 Goodenough’s prospects

From the Houston Chronicle:

Feeling behind in school wasn’t new for Goodenough when he started his physics Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. As a child, his dyslexia went undiagnosed. But it still stung when, after serving in World War II, an administrator told him he wouldn’t make it as a physicist because he had started too late. He was in his 20s.

QUESTION: Who served in World War II? (This is a grammar fail more than an ambiguity.)

20 Hillary Clinton’s blue collar


From Politico: “She’s dressed in a blue-collared shirt and wearing bold silver earrings.”


1. In the phrase “blue-collared shirt,” is this use of the hyphen correct, given the shirt shown in the picture?

2. If yes, is such use optimal?

(Hint: See Purdue’s style guide, although this is a subject about which opinions vary.)

21 Hillary’s email server

SOURCE: A Politico piece titled FBI could leak Clinton email investigation, Grassley warns.

TEXT: “A hypothetical leak could occur, he said, if officials believed Clinton was not being prosecuted for political reasons.”

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

22 Homosexuality and the Texas GOP’s 2016 platform

From the Texas GOP platform of 2016 — it’s more a grammar fail than an ambiguity:

Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nations founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.

See, e.g., the NPR story.

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

23 If-applicable parentheticals

TEXT: Except as provided in sections 5 and 6 (if applicable) …

QUESTION: Does that imply that neither of sections 5 and 6 might be applicable – that is, that both of them might be not-applicable?

EXERCISE: Rewrite so that it’s clear that only section 6 might not be applicable.

24 Inept phonies

TEXT: From a Maureen Dowd column in the NY Times, March 5, 2016: “Trump was right about Romney. When you lose a race that you should have won by being an inept phony, you can’t call this year’s front-runner an inept phony.” (Emphasis added.)

COMMENT: The italicized part of this quotation arguably has two meanings:

  1. Romney could have won the 2012 presidential race by being an inept phony (says Dowd).
  2. Romney lost the 2012 presidential race because he was an inept phony (ditto).

EXERCISE: Rewrite the italicized portion of the Dowd quote to be clear that she intended the second meaning. Extra points: Keep something of the same rhythm or structure to the sentence.

25 Iron fish

From Philippa Roxby, Why an iron fish can make you stronger (BBC.com 2015): “… participants started using water from wells after a few months, because of drought, which was contaminated by arsenic.”

QUESTION: What exactly was contaminated by arsenic?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

26 IRS Form 1099

TEXT: “As we tend to receive the most questions related to Form 1099-MISC, we would like to provide you with some general guidelines and resources in order to assist you with the accurate and timely filing of Form 1099-MISC.” (From Christie A. Gricius, CPA, Client Alert: 1099-MISC Reporting Guidelines (Jan. 2016) (emphasis added).)

QUESTION: What are the two possible meanings of the italicized text?

EXERCISE: Rewrite the italicized portion twice, once for each meaning.

27 Ivanka Trump in South Korea

From the president: “My daughter, Ivanka, just arrived in South Korea. We cannot have a better, or smarter, person representing our country.” From Jonathan Chait: “That second sentence can really be read a couple ways.” [DCT comment: It’d be better to say “a couple of ways.”] From Gary Schroeder: “Also, the use of commas implies that she is his only daughter.”

28 Jewish grandmothers

In honor of Passover, here’s this from Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “My grandmother is ninety-three and, to my knowledge, has never kept kosher.”

QUESTION: If we take the last part of the sentence in isolation, what are two plausible intepretations of the bold-faced phrase?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

29 Job recommendation

TEXT: “I enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.” From an example given by Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014).

30 LaGuardia airport

From this NY Times article: “Under any circumstances, turning the La Guardia that Mr. Biden derided in 2014 into the ‘globally renowned, 21st-century airport’ that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has promised would be an impressive feat.”

QUESTION: What did Gov. Cuomo do:

  1. promise that LaGuardia itself would be an impressive feat? or
  2. promise to turn LaGuardia into a globally-renowned, 21st-century airport, which would be an impressive feat? or

EXERCISE: Rewrite to make this more clear. (Hint: Consider breaking it into mutiple sentences.)

One possible rewrite: “In 2014, Mr. Biden derided LaGuardia as a third-world airport. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to turn it into a ‘globally renowned, 21st-century airport,’ but that would be an impressive feat.”

31 Laurie Metcalf and infidelity

This example is from a NY Times piece about how streaming-TV episodes are getting too long, but noting how exceptions exist, such as Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete:

Its third episode — essentially a long dramatic monologue about infidelity by Laurie Metcalf — is 43 minutes of regret and catharsis, the camera holding tight to Ms. Metcalf’s face. I did not look at my watch once.

The italicized portion has two possible meanings:

1. A long dramatic monologue about Laurie Metcalf’s infidelity; and

2. A long dramatic monologue, about infidelity, by Laurie Metcalf[Note the commas.]

In case #2, it’d be simpler just to rearrange the sentence, thusly: “a long dramatic monologue by Laurie Metcalf about infidelity.”

32 Lawyer ethics rules

TEXT: This was the title of an article in the April 2017 ABA Journal: “Lawyers should tread carefully before quitting a troublesome client to comply with ethics rules”

QUESTION: What action should lawyers take to comply with ethics rules? A) Quitting a troublesome client. B) Treading carefully before quitting a troublesome client.

QUESTION: How could this be rewritten to make it clear that the intended meaning is B) above?

33 Lawyer spin

TEXT: From this comment (by a brilliant lawyer) in an on-line forum: “A classic lawyering tactic is to use the most favorable (to your side) characterization of something you can justify.”

EXERCISE: Rewrite this to make it clear that the term “you can justify” applies to characterization and not to something.

34 Less and less people

From Mark Kleiman, The Current Crime Debate Isn’t Doing Hillary Justice (WashingtonMonthly.com Feb. 2016):

When the prison population is small, it consists mostly of serious, high-rate offenders, because prosecutors and judges try to single them out. Therefore, when the population grows, it grows mostly by adding less and less dangerous people.

(Emphasis added.)


  1. Is the bold-faced portion ambiguous? If so, what are the two (or more) possible meanings?
  2. Would “fewer and fewer dangerous people” be a better fit here?
  3. Might hyphens be useful here? (See the Grammarist notes on phrasal adjectives.)
  4. Could the bold-faced portion be improved? If so, revise it.

35 Litigation threats

TEXT: No litigation against Borrower is pending or threatened to Borrower’s knowledge.

QUESTION 1: What are two possible meanings?

QUESTION 2: How might a court resolve the ambiguity? (Hint: Consider the contra proferentem principle.)

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

36 Making babies

TEXT (forwarded by a spring-2016 student): Mice Breeding Chinese Scientists Say Making Babies in Space Is Possible (Inverse.com). The student’s comment: “TL;DR: Hyphens are important, yo.”

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

37 Medical report

“The young man had involuntary seminal fluid emission when he engaged in foreplay for several weeks.” From an example given by Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014).

38 Memorial Day

TEXT: From Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy speech, June 2, 2016: “We honor the sacrifice of those who died for our country in many ways – by living our values, by making this a stronger and fairer nation, and by carrying out a smart and principled foreign policy.

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

39 Meow

Rewrite to eliminate the ambiguity: “He gave her cat food.”

(Adapted from http://literarydevices.net/ambiguity)

40 Merle Haggard in same-sex marriage?

Rewrite to eliminate the ambiguity:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

(In http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/012652.html and quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Unresolved_ambiguity)

41 Midnight hour

TEXT: “Tenant will vacate the Premises no later than 12 midnight on December 15, 2020; Tenant’s failure to do so will be a material breach of this Agreement.”

FACTS: At 10:00 a.m. on December 15, Tenant is still occupying the Premises.

QUESTION: Is Tenant in material breach?

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

42 Milk, eggs, and computer programmers

From a Facebook photo (no longer available online): “Honey, please go to the market and buy 1 [sic] bottle of milk. If they have eggs, bring 6 [sic].”

QUESTION: Bring six eggs, or six bottles of milk?

EXERCISE: Rewrite thes second sentence to clarify the intended meaning.

43 Mortgage-backed securities

TEXT: From David Dayen, Trump’s Regulators Want to Kill a Key Financial Rule That Even Republicans Support, (newrepublic.com Jan. 23, 2018):

… the [banks’ financial] assets are counted differently according to the risk they hold. This can prove disastrous if the “low-risk” assets are actually dangerous—as mortgage-backed securities were considered to be during the housing bubble.

QUESTION: What exactly were mortgage-backed securities considered to be during the housing bubble — were they considered dangerous, or were they considered low-risk?

QUESTION: How could this problem be fixed?

44 Mutts comic strip

See the strip of July 13, 2017.

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

45 Nannies and the gig economy

TEXT: From Alex Rosenblat, There’s an App for Wrecking Nannies’ Lives, NYTimes.com, Jul. 12, 2018: “This was a common complaint among care wor­kers we interviewed: that their industry is being flooded with people who are new to care work, who see it as supplementary income rather than as a pro­fes­sion and undercut their wages.”

QUESTION 1: Could someone argue that the word “their” in the italicized text refers to people who are new to care work? QUESTION 2: How could the end of the italicized part be improved to avoid an argument about Question 1?

46 NCAA Finals

REWRITE: “They reached the tournament finals for the seventh time this year.”

47 New York City nuns

From Matt A.V. Chaban, Down to One Resident in 15,600 Square Feet, a Missionary Sisterhood’s Home Is for Sale (NYTimes.com June 2016):

The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was established in New York almost by accident. It was founded in 1897 by Mother Marie Louise De Meester, who was visiting during World War I [???] following a missionary trip to St. Croix. During her stay, she realized a residence in the city might not only ease the order’s work in the Western Hemisphere, but also improve recruitment.

EXERCISE: Rewrite the second and third sentences so as not to suggest that World War I was going on in 1897.

48 North Korean weaponry

From Yochi Dreazen, Here’s what war with North Korea would look like (Vox.com Feb. 7, 2018):

Gregson thinks Kim [Jong Un] wouldn’t only use his chemical weapons against military targets in South Korea. The Pentagon has a sizable military presence in neighboring Japan, and the island of Guam is a US territory that is home to more than 163,000 American citizens. Both are well within range of Kim’s missiles and rockets — and Gregson expects both would be hit.

QUESTION: What are the two possible meanings of the italicized portion?

EXERCISE: Come up with two better ways to phrase the italicized portion — one for each possible meaning.

49 Obama’s veto

TEXT: From the Washington Post: “The House GOP effort to override Obama’s veto of a bill to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood failed to get two-thirds, as expected.”

ASSIGNMENT: Rewrite this to eliminate the ambiguity in the “as expected” part.

50 Obituary

From an obituary (paraphrased): “Doris is survived by her loving husband Mark of 15 years.”

QUESTION: Were Doris and Mark married for 15 years? Or is Mark 15 years old? How could this be clarified?

QUESTION: Is it possible that Doris had more than one husband? How could this be clarified?

51 Olivia Pope

TEXT: “Wait for me to do what I do best.” (Spoken by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in an episode of Scandal aired April 7, 2016.)

QUESTION: What are the two possible meanings of this sentence?

EXERCISE: Rewrite the line of dialogue to be clear which version you think Olivia meant — and try to make it sound “natural” and not lawyer-like.

52 Overseas trips

TEXT — from a parent’s letter of recommendation for a prospective Eagle Scout: “We’ve taken a number of family trips, including trips to China, the Netherlands, and Italy this past year.

  1. Rewrite to be clear that only the trip to Italy was in the previous year.
  2. Rewrite to be clear that all trips were taken in the previous year.

53 Persecution of Christians

This is adapted from my church’s Easter Sunday service booklet of a few years ago (with the family’s name changed):

Easter flowers and decorations are given
to the glory of God
and in memory of their grandmother Jane Doe
In honor of all Christians,
Especially those persecuted
By the Doe family

EXERCISE: Rewrite. (Hint: How could this be fixed with just one additional character?)

54 Poseidon’s daughter

Heard on The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast on Vox.com, when he interviewed his Vox co-founder Melissa Bell (no longer available online):

BELL: I was raised by the ocean in San Diego.

KLEIN: I had a privileged upbringing: Poseidon was my father … I control the waves.

EXERCISE: Rewrite to eliminate the ambiguity in Bell’s statement.

55 Pricing term extension


  1. A supply contract between Provider and Customer includes a price schedule that is to be effective for one year, expiring December 1 (the “Pricing Term”), but Customer can extend the Pricing Term once, for one more year.
  2. The extension provision says: Written notice of extension of the Pricing Term must be given no later than 30 days before its then-current expiration date.
  3. The contract does not contain any other relevant notice provision.
  4. On October 31, Customer mails Provider a written notice of extension by certified mail, return receipt requested.
  5. On November 7, Customer receives back the “green card” from the U.S. Postal Service confirming receipt by Provider on November 2.
  6. Provider later tells Customer that the Pricing Term expired and that Provider’s prices will increase to Provider’s published list prices.

QUESTION: Has Customer successfully extended the Pricing Term? Why or why not?

Exercise: Rewrite the Pricing Term extension provision to clarify it.

(The same issues can come up with terms such as, for example, submit for bids — is a bid “submitted” when sent, or when received?)

56 Prime rate plus 2%

TEXT (from a dispute that I arbitrated): A contract states that payments remaining past due more than 30 days after the due date will bear interest at “a rate per annum equal to the prime rate published by the Wall Street Journal on the business day before the date on which such interest begins to accrue, changing with each change in such published rate, plus two percent (2%).”

FACTS: On the relevant date, the Journal‘s published U.S. prime rate was 4.00%.

QUESTION: On its face, from a drafting style perspective, what’s wrong with this interest-rate provision?

QUESTION: What interest rate should be applied to the late payment — 6%, or 4.08%?

QUESTON: How could the interest-rate language be clarified?

57 Progressive resistance to President Trump

TEXT: “The temptation for progressives to resist pushing their own concrete policy agenda is compelling, especially since doing so gives the other side ammunition for criticism ….” (From Joel Berg, It’s Policy, Stupid — Why progressives need real solutions to real problems, Washington Monthly, Apr. 10, 2017.)

QUESTION: In the quotation, the bold-faced “doing so” refers to what, exactly — pushing a policy agenda, or resisting pushing an agenda?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

58 Quack quack?

Rewrite to eliminate the ambiguity:

I saw her duck.

(Adapted from http://literarydevices.net/ambiguity/)

59 Redistricting court fight

From the Houston Chronicle:

Throughout the litigation, [MALC chairman and State Rep. Rafael] Anchia noted that the lower courts have made 10 findings of intentional discrimination against the State of Texas by both Republican and Democratic-appointed judges.

QUESTION: Where are the two ambiguities in this sentence? How can they be fixed?

60 Report of Rubio’s concession speech

TEXT: A tweet by Vox.com’s Ezra Klein: If the upshot of this speech is “and I’ll support the guy who did all these terrible things I’m talking about in the general [election]”…

QUESTION: When “the guy” did “all the terrible things”: (i) in the general election, or (ii) in some other context?

EXERCISE: Rewrite.

61 Restricted trust funds

TEXT: The Trust may donate funds only to charitable and educational institutions.

QUESTION: May the Trust donate funds to an institution that is charitable but not educational? How about vice versa?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

62 Rodeo

From Joey Guerra, Chris Young in fine voice at RodeoHouston, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 3, 2016, p. A8: “Nothing was ever too brash or too loud.”

QUESTION: Did the writer think that Chris Young was, or wasn’t, brash and loud?

63 Rodney Dangerfield

Here’s the “Quotation of the day” from the NY Times morning-briefing email of August 2, 2017:

“His mother convinced him to open a savings account one summer so he could save up for a football uniform. Then she stole his money.”
Joan Dangerfield, the widow of the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who was honored with a plaque in Kew Gardens, Queens, 13 years after his death. His childhood in the neighborhood prepared him for a lifetime of getting no respect.

QUESTION: Who was honored — Joan Dangerfield, or Rodney?

EXERCISE: Rewrite the sentence that begins, “Joan Dangerfield” to clarify it.

64 SCOTUS and a sexual-crimes statute


  1. A federal criminal statute requires a 10-year mandatory sentence enhancement in certain cases where the defendant had previously been convicted of crimes “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.”
  2. A convicted defendant argues that the qualifier, “involving a minor or ward,” applies not just to the third-listed item (abusive sexual conduct), but also to the first two (aggrevated sexual abuse and (plain?) sexual abuse).
  3. The Supreme Court disagrees. See Lockhart v. United States, No. 14-8358 (U.S. March 1, 2016) (affirming Second Circuit and rejecting Eighth Circuit’s contrary view).

EXERCISE: Tweak the italicized statutory language to reduce the chances of a circuit split. [Notice that I didn’t say “eliminate” the ambiguity – one doesn’t want to overpromise ….]

65 Separate interviews

From an arbitration award I was writing (and caught myself): “Ms. Doe and her coworker Jane Roe were separately interviewed by Human Resources manager John Doe and Becky Bow.”

QUESTION: How many people were interviewed by how many people?

66 Sex and the Supreme Pontiff

Rewrite this headline to eliminate the ambiguity:

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

(Adapted from http://grammar.about.com/od/terms/g/ambiguity.htm)

67 Short-term trading

From a Hacker News discussion:

First commenter: “You should only short term trade with your 401k.”

Responder: “You’re saying, ‘if you’re going to short-term trade, you should use your 401k to do it in preference to any other funds source’, [sic] right? Because there’s a way to read this where you’re saying ‘the only way you should trade with your 401 is short-term’. [sic]

First commenter: “Lol. The first.”

QUESTION: How can the above sentence be clarified by simply moving words around? (As noted above, there are two possible meanings.)

QUESTION: Why did I write “[sic]” where I did?

68 Success

From a Facebook posting: “A man’s success has a lot to do with the kind of woman he chooses to have in his life. (Pass this on to all great women.)”

QUESTION: What’s a different interpretation of this quote?

69 Superman and Wonder Woman

From a tweet by SCOTX justice Don Willett: “My heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman.”

EXERCISE: Rewrite twice – once for each meaning.

70 Suspected pedophile

From this tweet by ABC Channel 13 (Houston): “Suspected Houston-area pedophile accused of assaulting 16-year-old arrested in Canada”

QUESTION: How could this be clarified by adding two tiny characters?

71 Texas Democrats

TEXT: “[In the 1930s, some] of Texas’s wealthiest families could not abide the new breed of Texas Democrats who found hope in the New Deal and wanted the federal government to do even more.” (Adapted from Mary Beth Rogers, Turning Texas Blue – What It Will Take to Break the GOP Grip on America’s Reddest State, at 49 (New York: St. Martin’s Press 2016))

QUESTION: Who wanted the federal government to do more — (A) the new breed of Texas Democrats, or (B) some of Texas’s wealthiest families?

EXERCISE: Rewrite to make it clear that the intended meaning was (A).

NOTE: This sentence correctly uses “Texas’s” as the possessive, with the s-apostrophe-s and not merely s-apostrophe. (A generally-recognized exception to this rule is the possessive of Jesus of Nazareth, e.g., the centurions divided Jesus’ robe among them.)

72 Trademark license termination clause

From General Nutrition Investment Co. v. Holland & Barrett Int’l Ltd (Rev 1) [2017] EWHC 746 (Ch), ¶ 15:

5.2 The Licensor may terminate this Agreement [sic] immediately by notice in writing if:

(a) The Licensee [i] materially breaches this Agreement or any other member with the H&B Group commits an act which would amount to a material breach of this Agreement or [ii] (without prejudice to the Licensor’s other rights to terminate under this Agreement) otherwise infringes the Licensor’s rights under the Trade Marks [iii] to an extent likely to cause material lost to the Licensor; or …

(Bracketed romanettes added; hat tip: IP Draughts.)

QUESTION 1: Does the materiality qualifier in clause iii apply to both clause i and clause ii or just to clause ii? EXERCISE: Rewrite to clarify.

QUESTION 2: Why does this quotation include “[sic]” after “terminate this Agreement”?

73 Traffic signs

See this sign.

74 Umbrella strikes

Rewrite this headline to eliminate the ambiguity:

She hit the man with an umbrella.

(Adapted from http://literarydevices.net/ambiguity)

75 Vacating the premises

CLAUSE: Tenant will completely vacate the Premises no later than 12 midnight on December 15, 20×0; Tenant’s failure to do so will be a material breach of this Agreement.

EXERCISE: Rewrite this to make it clear that if Tenant remains on the premises at 10:00 a.m. on December 15, it will be in breach.

76 Vladimir Putin

TEXT: “WASHINGTON (AP) – A Russian billionaire close to President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday he is willing to take part in U.S. congressional hearings to discuss his past business relationship with President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.” (AP.com)

QUESTIONS: 1) Who exactly is willing to take part in U.S. congressional hearings? 2) How could this be clarified?

77 Want ads

“Wanted: Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.” From an example given by Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014).

78 What to bring?

State the possibilities for what the writer below will bring to a party:

I’ll bring wine or beer and dessert.

(Adapted from http://www.literarydevices.com/ambiguity)

79 White Sox clubhouse

From Ken Hoffman’s column in the Houston Chronicle, March 22, 2016, p. D2, col. 1:

White Sox management announced this week that the LaRoche matter was closed — and the right decision was made by all parties involved.

QUESTION: Was Hoffman —

  • reporting that the right decision was made, or
  • opining that the right decision was made?

80 Who retired?

From this Texas Observer piece on Fifth Circuit judge Don Willett as being on the short list to replace Anthony Kennedy:

When I spoke with Wallace Jefferson, chief justice for most of Willett’s tenure on the Texas Supreme Court (he retired in 2013) ….

QUESTION: Who retired — and how can this be fixed?

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