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Probate & Property

Sept/Oct 2023

The Last Word: He Spends More Time with His Dog than His Wife

Mark R Parthemer

Summary

  • Syntax refers to grammar and rules designed to ensure a
  • To unpack amphibology, we explore the glide path from syntax to semantics and land on pragmatics.
  • Writing legal documents with clarity includes battling not only lexical, but also syntactic, ambiguity.
The Last Word: He Spends More Time with His Dog than His Wife
iStock.com/Maurian Soares Salvador

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A prior Last Word column focused on ambiguity versus vagueness. 37 Prob. & Prop. 64 (Mar./Apr. 2023). Recall we talked about ambiguity as a lack of clarity because of two or more possible interpretations. The discussed form of ambiguity flowed from word choice, termed lexical ambiguity. One example in that column was the sentence, “James Bond favors a cool drink.” The reader cannot discern whether “cool” means trendy or chilled.

But uncertainty and lack of clarity also can result from grammatical construction. The form of ambiguity that flows from grammar is syntactic ambiguity, or amphibology. For example, consider the sentence, “He spends more time with his dog than his wife.” The reader is unsure whether he spends more time with his dog than the amount of time his wife spends with the dog or more time with the dog than the amount of time he spends with his wife.

To unpack amphibology, we explore the glide path from syntax to semantics and land on pragmatics.

Syntax

The way the words are ordered is syntax. Three focus points are subject-verb agreement, proper word choice, and correct order of phrases and words. Proper syntax makes it easy for a reader to understand the expressed ideas.

Sentences are often structured as a subject plus verb plus a direct object. For example, “She rang the bell.” The syntactic analysis of this sentence is that “she” is the subject, “rang” is the verb, and “the bell” is the direct object. This sentence is crisp and clear.

Syntax also uses a combination of independent and dependent clauses. An independent clause can act as a stand-alone sentence, such as “She rang the bell.” A dependent clause is not a complete sentence but might support or give more context to the independent clause. You can add a dependent clause to a simple sentence to enrich it: “After reaching the mountain summit, she rang the bell.” Everything up to the comma in that sentence acts as a dependent clause to modify the independent clause. And, of course, order matters. Note the time nuance from shifting the dependent clause to the end of the sentence: “After exercising, he lifted the box,” and “He lifted the box after exercising.” The first suggests that after implementing an exercise program, the subject developed muscle strength sufficient to lift the box. In contrast, the latter suggests that the subject lifted the box immediately after an exercise session.

Semantics

Semantics refers to the meaning of a sentence. Without proper semantics, the meaning of a sentence can be completely different from what is intended.

In legal writing, proper semantics is crucial because it can alter the meaning of a sentence with the order of the words and the use of deixis.

Consider the sentences “The dog ate the homework” and “The homework ate the dog.” Both are grammatically correct, but the latter makes less sense and doesn’t sound plausible.

Semantics can also rely on deixis, which is the use of common words that give context to a place, time, or person. Tomorrow, she, and there are examples of words that can help clarify the meaning of a sentence. For example, “She is coming to dinner” is a sentence that sparks urgency, whereas “She is coming to dinner tomorrow,” where the indexical word is “tomorrow,” alerts the reader that the person prepping for the dinner has more time to prepare. Returning to a previous example, note the clarity from “After exercising for a month, he was able to lift the box” and “He was able to lift the box immediately after exercising.”

To summarize, syntax refers to grammar and rules designed to ensure a sentence is grammatically correct. Semantics refers to meaning and how the lexicon, structure, tone, and other elements coalesce to communicate meaning.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics considers the semantics of a sentence in a particular context. It is less concerned with literal meaning and more with the practical interpretation of a sentence. Take the sentence, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” The semantics of that sentence are clear enough—the speaker is hungry and would consider eating a horse. Pragmatics considers the words of this sentence in context; the sentence presupposes that the speaker might not literally want to eat a horse but instead is hyperbolically expressing the speaker’s state of hunger.

Concluding Thoughts

Writing legal documents with clarity includes battling not only lexical, but also syntactic, ambiguity. Writing with care and attention to avoid ambiguity will provide better communication to, for, and with your clients.

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