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The punctuation mark can win or lose a court case

By Pharaoh Ochichi | October 17th 2015

NAIROBI: Prof Karori Mbugua and Prof Mauri Yambo, University of Nairobi lecturers of Philosophy and Sociology respectively, never tire of reminding their students that syllogism is a type of logical reasoning which demands that if you concur with the first two statements, then you have no option but to agree with the third one as well, thus making the argument factually and logically valid. For example, in this kind of thinking, which is from general to specific, one would argue: All those with Bachelor of Laws are literate; all magistrates in Kenya have LLB; accordingly, all magistrates in this country are literate.

So in the wake of the recent report by the Council of Legal Education Quality Assurance and Compliance Committee that revealed that the state of legal education in some universities is wanting, and in the light of the latest revelation by Sharad Rao’s Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board that many magistrates are incapable of writing judgements in sound grammatical English, the first premise is wrong. The incorrect proposition makes the conclusion unacceptable, rendering the whole argument factually faulty and, as a result, invalid.

The following hypothetical case will serve to illustrate convincingly (hopefully) why it’s important for students of law to master English or any other language they will use in their business.

A wealthy man has died, but fortunately when ailing, he made a will that states in part: “My wealth has to be split equally among my beloved wife, my darling daughter, and my two dear sons.” Then the time comes, after his “departure”, when the beneficiaries have to share and share alike that which they are entitled to. But controversy crops up: the mother and her daughter argue that each son, according to how they interpret the will, shouldn’t get a third of the deceased’s wealth, but just a sixth. The tussle morphs into a legal family case. Such disputes are not unusual in Kenya.

Against this backdrop, it’s unnecessary to point out that a comma is a tiny punctuation mark but its presence or absence can have far-reaching consequences. In this disagreement, if the old man had wanted all his family members to benefit in equal amounts, and went ahead to seek legal advice to help him craft a will, probably now the verdict of the case would have him spinning in his grave. And chances are the sons would forever curse the drafter of the will for “robbing” them of their entitlement.

When a class of 20 college students was asked to explain the meaning of this will, almost the entire lot responded that each of the four family members is entitled to a third of mzee’s assets. The long and short of it is that in law, as in many other professions, language is king, and mastering it gives one a definite advantage. The significance of language in the profession of law is most likely what makes English testable in the Kenya School of Law.

Incidentally, a sentence in the story about illiterate judges that appeared in one of the local dailies (not this paper) had, ironically, a syntactical defect. The story, which was headlined, Judges who can’t write a blot to law, published on September 12, had a misplaced phrase. In the third paragraph, the story said: “Writing skills, the board said, refers to the ability of a judicial officer to use language to explain to litigants how a decision is arrived at in grammatical language (emphasis mine)”.

The italicised words are a prepositional phrase which functions as an adverbial phrase. They should have been placed just after the noun “litigants”, but because of the way the sentence is composed, the positioning of the noun may not help, rejigging of the sentence could therefore be the solution.

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