Punctuation for legal writing

Punctuation for legal writing


One of the most unusual aspects of old-fashioned contract drafting was the belief among lawyers and judges that punctuation was unimportant. The prevailing view in common law jurisdictions was that the meaning of legal documents should be ascertained from the words of the document and their context rather than from punctuation. Accordingly, old-fashioned legal drafting tends to involve little or no punctuation. This makes it extremely hard to read and potentially highly ambiguous.

For example, consider these unpunctuated sentences:

This man said the judge is a fool.

Woman without her man would be a savage.

Now consider the same sentences with punctuation:

This man, said the judge, is a fool.

Woman – without her, man would be a savage.

Fortunately, modern legal drafters have begun to use punctuation in the same way that ordinary writers use punctuation – to give guidance about meaning.


3.2.1 Full stop/period (.)

Full stop is the British English term for this punctuation mark, and period is the American English term for it. Full stops should be used in the following situations:

  At the end of all sentences which are not questions or exclamations. The next word should normally begin with a capital letter.

  After abbreviations of single words. For example, ‘Sun. 10 June’.

  When a sentence ends with a quotation which itself ends with a full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark, no further full stop is required. However, if the quotation is short, and the sentence introducing it is more important, the full stop is put outside the quotation marks. For example: on the door were written the words ‘no entry’.

  A sequence of three full stops (known as an ellipsis) indicates an omission from the text. A fourth full stop should be added if this comes at the end of a sentence. For example, ‘this handbook … is exceptionally useful…. I refer to it every day’.

3.2.2 Comma (,)

Commas are used to show a short pause within a sentence. They should be used with care as a misplaced comma can alter the intended meaning of the sentence. For example:

James hit Ian and Edward, then ran away.

James hit Ian, and Edward then ran away.

At the same time, commas should be used where necessary to clarify meaning. Simply omitting the commas often leads to ambiguity or an unintended meaning. For example:

This lawyer, said the judge, is a fool.

This lawyer said the judge is a fool.

It is possible to identify eight main situations in which commas should be used:

1   To separate items in a list of more than two items. For example, ‘cars, trucks, vans, and tractors’. In this sentence, there is a comma after vans to show that the list contains four separate categories of items – cars, trucks, vans, tractors – and that vans and tractors do not make up a single category.

2   To separate coordinated main clauses. For example, ‘Cars should park here, and trucks should continue straight on’. In this sentence, the comma after here marks the separation between the different clauses in the sentence.

3   To mark the beginning and end of a sub-clause in a sentence. For example, ‘James, who is a corporate lawyer, led the seminar’. 3) Here, the commas after James and lawyer allow the writer to indicate to the reader in passing that James is a corporate lawyer, while at the same time placing the main emphasis on the fact that James led the seminar.

4   After certain kinds of introductory clause. For example, ‘Having finished my work, I left the office.’

5   After certain kinds of introductory words. When a sentence begins with a word which does not form part of the clause which follows it, a comma usually appears after this word. These are usually words – or combinations of two or three words – inserted by the author to indicate to the reader how the rest of the sentence is to be understood and how it relates to the previous sentence. For example, however, therefore, of course, nevertheless.

6   To separate a phrase or sub-clause from the main clause in order to avoid misunderstanding. For example: ‘1) I did not go to Paris yesterday, because the meeting was cancelled.’ 1) Here, the comma after yesterday makes it clear that the writer did not go to Paris, and the reason he or she did not go to Paris was that the meeting was cancelled. If the comma were to be removed, the sentence would be ambiguous – it would give the impression that the writer did go to Paris but that the reason for going to Paris was not that the meeting was cancelled: 6) ‘I did not go to Paris yesterday because the meeting was cancelled. I went because I had urgent shopping to do!’

7   Following words which introduce direct speech (e.g. said). For example, ‘He said, “my lawyer is a genius!” ‘

8   Between adjectives which each qualify a noun in the same way. For example, ‘a small, dark room’. Here, a comma is placed after small. However, where the adjectives qualify the noun in different ways, or when one adjective qualifies another, no comma is used. For example, ‘a distinguished international lawyer’ or ‘a shiny blue suit’.

Commas are softer in effect than full stops and semi-colons, and are therefore unsuitable for long lists. They should not be used simply as an alternative to using short sentences or if there is any risk of ambiguity.

3.2.3 Colon (:)