Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Guest blogger: The serial comma and the summer job

This essay is by Ryan Gorsche, a law student at the UT Law School:

For ten minutes, the two assigning attorneys had championed my memorandum. Twenty-seven excellently written pages of hard-hitting legal analysis detailing exactly why, under the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, some underwriter a block down Wall Street needn't refile a Form T-1. Given their excitement, the short answer section might well have read "and by adding two drops of potassium tetra-iodide, we've cured cancer." I mean, have you ever seen two white-shoe, Wall Street lawyers bump chests? It's an odd sight because those tailored Jermyn Street shirts don't give much--but it's doable. But then: "Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is this? This is totally unacceptable"--like I'd somehow slipped the F-word into the memorandum. What is it about the presence of the serial comma that makes unusually calm lawyers lose their minds?

E.B. White and William Strunk's Elements of Style states: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last." And then, right before the reader passes to Rule 3--Enclosing Parenthetic Expressions Between Commas--they say: "This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press." The government, a prestigious English university, a Cornell English professor, and E.B. White--of whom James Thurber said "No one can write a sentence like White"--all support the serial comma. Why don't lawyers? Purposeful ambiguity.

Of all the serial comma's virtues, rhetorical proportion and accompanying precision is paramount. Read aloud the test sentence: "The flag is red, white, and blue." No doubt the reader notices that three colors compose the flag: it is red; it is white; it is blue. But without the serial comma, poor white and blue are relegated to some afterthought: the flag is red; oh, yeah, also white and blue.

Further, the serial comma saves the reader time. Upon reaching the second comma, the reader understands the writer is articulating a series. But without the serial comma, upon reaching the first comma, and noticing the pronounced absence of the second comma, the reader's mind no longer understands the sentence as a series. The reader is duped into expecting some sort of parenthetical clause--e.g., The flag is red, white and blue having left town together, in honor of blood. But the clause never comes, and the reader becomes the rereader.

But the lawyer's goal is precisely this ambiguity and confusion. Read this test sentence from a recent imaginary prospectus: "The high-yield bonds, being offered by the issuer and underwritten by the underwriter, maturing at some certain date and time and having been approved by the Securities Exchange Commission are likely to situate you as a 'good catch' amongst the opposite sex, to make your bank account overflowing with cash and enshrine you amongst your friends as the savviest investor since Jay Gould." Some commas might make plain exactly what the issuer promises.

But that's the point. When the impecunious investor, now the laughing-stock of his friends but dating plenty of women through pity, sues for securities fraud, those crafty lawyers will say: "Tut, tut. We never made such promises; we merely promised you dates. The clause regarding your friends' appreciation merely modified filling your own bank account with cash--which you have failed to do." Defendants win.

So how did it turn out? Partnership prospects be damned, all of my summer associate memorandums contained the serial comma. I still got the offer.

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