Minority Opinions

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Language Ambiguity

with 2 comments

As a programmer, physicist, and engineer, I’m used to words with precise meanings in certain contexts.  Surprisingly, that skill has also helped me learn to skim legal documents.  Sure, I use that skill most often for software license statements, but it has also come in handy for patent terms, buying a house, and taxes.

This year, I noticed part of the form that hadn’t applied before now:

No. of children on 6c who […] did not live with you due to divorce or separation (see instructions)

Unfortunately, the instructions are more concerned with defining divorce or separation than with clarifying what the statement means. Pop quiz: Which is more appropriate?

  1. Number of children who lived with you, but not due to divorce or separation; or
  2. Number of children who did not live with you, but would have had it not been for a divorce or separation.

I’m fairly certain that the first answer I came up with was wrong. Certain enough to have scoured instructions and re-read the form until I realized my mistake.

The worst part is that someone probably spent serious time trying to make that line as precise as possible while still fitting in the space available for it.  My confusion is exactly the kind of thing that is cleared up almost automatically in verbal communication, through small cues of emphasis or through questions, but legal language has to be understandable in written form, preferably without any external help.

Perhaps I would have made a good patent lawyer, but I doubt it would have been as enjoyable as programming.  The bugs are so much harder to fix.


Written by eswald

24 Jan 2012 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Politics

2 Responses

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  1. I’m thinking a comma between “you” and “due” would’ve solved that one!

    You’re saying option B is correct, right? Option A seems improbable to me. It’s easy to miss the ambiguity if the comma I just mentioned is there in your mind as you read it. The other way around the ambiguity would jump out at you. Hence I predict option B, even without a clue about the context.

    Daniel Reeves

    26 Jan 2012 at 3:03 am

    • I’m hoping option B is correct, because that’s how I’m filling out the form. Sadly, the ambiguity didn’t jump out at me, which is why I had to rely on the context for clues that something was wrong. Good call on the comma; I can see how it might still be slightly confusing, but at least it wouldn’t have affected me.


      30 Jan 2012 at 10:01 am

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