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SECTION 4 - What do we need to know about grammar?


Legislative drafting, like any other form of official writing, must respect the standard conventions relating to grammar and usage. There is no special grammar for legislation. The way legislative sentences are structured and the way that words, expressions and parts of speech are used in them must reflect what is generally considered to be correct written English.

At the same time, as we saw in the previous Section, particular approaches have developed as to the way legislative sentences are written. If we are to examine these, we must use the accepted grammatical terminology to describe what is involved (for example noun, verb, adjective, adverb, subject, object, modifier, and so on), and be familiar with the way the concepts they refer to operate in a sentence.

These Materials assume you are already familiar with good grammar and that you write grammatical English. The purpose of this Section is to ensure that you are familiar with the grammatical terminology we use in these Materials. But it may also help you to find out whether you need to do some preliminary work on the subject. This Section also draws attention to some common mistakes. At the end of this section are two appendices containing a Grammar Checklist and a List of Grammatical Terms and Usage.

Section Objectives

By the end of this Section, you should be able to:

  • explain the basic features of grammar and the terms used to refer to them;
  • avoid a number of common errors of grammar.

Essential Questions

This Section is organised in terms of the following questions:

  1. Why is grammar important for the drafting?
  2. What grammatical terms do we need to know?
  3. What common grammatical mistakes should we watch for?

Studying this Section

The amount of work you may need to put into this Section will depend upon the extent to which you feel that you are competent in correct grammatical forms and in working with written English.

If this subject is largely unfamiliar to you (and this should become clear as a result of Exercise 1), time spent working through an elementary grammar will be fruitful. You will also need to study closely the examples in the List of Grammatical Terms and Usage in Appendix 2 to this Section, which explains the principal terms used in these Materials. You will come across references to grammar and syntax in later Modules. That may be the time to remind yourself of what is entailed by referring to appropriate parts of this Module. In that way you can steadily build your familiarity with the conventions.

If you feel that you are already comfortable with sound grammar and the terms used to refer to particular grammatical features, you should be able to proceed quite quickly through this Section. But do not persuade yourself that you are at home with the subject without having first worked on the Section.

This topic may not seem to be central to legislative drafting. But in our experience, trainees' drafts, though containing sensible legal answers, are too often spoiled by shortcomings in grammar and syntax.

Why is grammar important for the drafting?

The central component of all legislative text is the sentence. Legislative counsel must have a sound understanding of how sentences are correctly structured, the principles of syntax, in order to compose legal propositions that avoid ambiguity and convey their intended meaning.

Legislative counsel must master the grammatical practices that are conventionally followed for official documents and avoid those that are considered to be errors in that context. Because legislation is especially formal, these conventions tend to be less flexible than in other settings, or at least compliance with them is routinely insisted upon. The requirements are commonly those we associate with traditional grammar.

To write grammatically, we need to understand grammatical principles as well as why we should write in the particular ways dictated by those principles. Accordingly, we must be comfortable with the function of subjects, predicates and objects, of nouns and pronouns, of modification (by adjectives and verbs), of phrases and clauses, of subordinate clauses, and their correct incorporation into sentences. These Materials assumes that you are familiar with standard grammar and that you already use grammatical English in your professional work.

If you need to extend or refresh your understanding of what sound grammar entails, make the effort to consult a short primer for this purpose. (The Bibliography iInsert hyperlinkn the Supplementary Materials contains several suggestions). However, you should be sure to consult materials that relate to your locality since English usage varies in some respects across different linguistic communities.

What grammatical terms do we need to know?

When we are writing legislative sentences, we need to take account of features of grammar that are of particular relevance to legislative counsel. So you need to know the terms that are in general use to describe those features.

COMPLETE EXERCISE 1<center>hhperlink

Appendix 2 to this Section sets out terms used in these Materials with a short explanation for each. If you are uncertain about a grammatical term, consult the Appendix.

Activity 1

Read through Appendix 2 to this Section.

What common grammatical mistakes should we watch for?

This Section describes the most common mistakes that junior legislative counsel tend to make. At the end of the Section is a Checklist of these. Use this when checking your drafts, at least until you are confident that these mistakes are not occurring in your drafts.

Verb in a predicate is missing or incomplete.

Every legislative sentence must have a principal predicate that states what the subject of the sentence may, must or must not do, or how the subject is otherwise affected. Without a verb phrase to state this, the rule is incomplete.

Example 1

A person who in a public park -

  1. sells newspapers, journals or other publications;
  2. lights a fire;
  3. rides a bicycle; or
  4. damages any property belonging to the park.

There is no principal predicate in this sentence. All the verbs in the paragraphs belong to the dependent clause having “who” as its subject. There is no verb stating how the subject ("A person") is affected when engaging in any of the listed activities. The subject requires a verb phrase, for example “commits an offence”.

In the same way, if the sentence contains a subordinate clause (for example "who rides a bicycle"), that clause too needs its own verb phrase to form the predicate in the clause.

Example 2

Where a police officer about to search a person, the police officer must conduct the search at a police station if requested by that person.

A verb is missing from the introductory subordinate clause ("is" should be added before "about"). However, the omission of a verb from the concluding phrase is acceptable because it is an adjectival phrase rather than a clause, which needs a subject and its own predicate. The word “requested” can be either adjectival or verbal (the past participle of a compound verb). In this case, it is adjectival.

Verb does not agree with its subject in number

When the sentence subject is in the singular, the verb must be in the singular too. In the same way, a plural subject needs a verb in the plural.

Example 3

A transcript of the shorthand notes that have been taken of the proceedings at the trial of a person before the High Court are to be made if the court so directs.

The subject “transcript” is in the singular, as should be the related verb (“is”, not “are”). The relative clause (“that have been taken....”) modifies “shorthand notes” and therefore has a verb in the plural.

But certain words, though in a singular form, refer to collective cases (for example, "committee", "Board", "Force", "Government"). Properly, these are linked to a singular verb, but the grammatical practice varies across different English-speaking communities. For example, in the UK, a plural verb is used to emphasise that an action concerns the component parts, rather than the unit. This practice is not followed in other countries such as Canada.

Example 4

If the Board reaches a unanimous decision, the Secretary must inform the Registrar immediately, but if the Board are not in agreement after one hour of deliberation, the Chairman must adjourn the meeting.

A case that commonly causes inaccuracy concerns the word "none", when used as a subject. This word, which is a contraction of "no-one", is a singular word that requires a singular verb. A singular verb is needed too when "either ..... or" or "neither ...... nor" are used to distinguish two subjects both in the singular.

Similarly, the modifier “any” is properly attached to a singular noun that is accompanied by a singular verb.

Example 5

1. Members of the committee are to receive an attendance allowance, but none is entitled to the allowance if the meeting is adjourned for want of a quorum.

2. Neither the owner nor the occupier of land is liable to pay compensation.

3. No payment is to be made to any member of the Board who resigns from that office.

Note that in the last example, as in many cases, the indefinite article (here “an”) is usually preferred to “any”.

Pronoun is vague or ambiguous or missing.

Pronouns (for example "he", "she", "him", "her", "it") refer back to a specific noun that appears in an early part of the sentence or in an earlier sentence. Uncertainty can arise if a pronoun is not provided when it is needed or if the pronoun does not clearly relate back to the noun intended. A pronoun is generally treated as referring back to the nearest appropriate noun, but that may not be quite what the legislative counsel intended.

Example 6

1. The police officer may require the driver to produce his or her driving licence at a police station, which he or she must designate.

"his or her" clearly relates to the driver; but does "he or she" refer to the driver or the police officer?

2. A person commits an offence who, having come into possession of information that has been unlawfully acquired, fails to report it to the Commissioner.

What precisely is the person required to report - the fact of having come into possession of the information or the information itself?

Modifier is misplaced or ambiguous.

English is such a flexible language that is possible to put a modifier in several places with a definite, but different, meaning in each. Inappropriate placing can produce unintended or even ambiguous results. Avoid two particular cases:

  • when, because of its position in the sentence, the precise effect of the modifier is unclear (i.e. it is so loose that it could modify more than one expression);
  • when the modifier could equally well apply to an expression before or after it.

Example 7

1. The Board may make a grant to any person from its general fund or from any of its other funds with the approval of the Minister.

Does the modifier "with the approval of the Minister" relate only to the second type of grant or to both types? It is ambiguous.

2. The police officer may request the driver within 24 hours to produce his identity card and driving licence.

Does "within 24 hours" qualify the request or the production? It too is ambiguous.

Preposition is incorrect or missing.

English has many prepositions. Some of them by convention are linked to particular verbs (for example to comply with, rather than to, a regulation).

Several prepositions need to be used with precision; otherwise, ambiguous or unexpected consequences may follow. So, before, in relation to a date, covers any time up to, but not including, that date. Similarly, after, in relation to a date, covers time subsequent to, but not including, that date. Again, between, in relation to two numbers, means that both those numbers must be left out of the calculation.

In a legislative sentence that attaches a verb to a series of nouns by a preposition, it may necessary to repeat the preposition before each noun to avoid ambiguity.

Example 8

1. Each council is responsible with providing litter bins at its area.

The correct prepositions are "for" and "in".

2. Applications for a dealer's licence are to be made after 1 January 1994.

This means that applications cannot be made earlier than 2 January.

3. A record is to be kept of all property belonging to the Police Force or a member of the Police Force or the Prison Service.

Does this apply to property of the Prison Service, or to the property of their members? Either "of" or "to" is required before that term.

Article (definite or indefinite) is wrong or missing.

Most nouns are accompanied by an article. "The" (the definite article) is specific, usually indicating that the noun has already been mentioned earlier or is unique. The indefinite article "a" (or "an" before a word beginning with a vowel) is used when the noun is not specific. If the article is missed out altogether, it may be unclear whether the noun is intended to be specific or unspecific.

However, the article is left out before a singular noun that is used unspecifically in the abstract (for example "food", "drink") or before plural words that refer to a class that is described in the plural (for example "cattle", "men").

Example 9

An authorised officer may order a person to leave an area designated as a designated area under section 10 if the officer finds the doing anything that, in the officer's opinion, may harm or disturb an endangered animal may order the person to leave the designated area for the purposes of protecting endangered animals in designated areas,

An indefinite article is needed for the first occurrence of designated area because it does not refer to a specific area. But a definite article is required for the second one because it refers back to the previously mentioned area. No article is needed for the last occurrence because it refers to a class expressed in plural terms.

Punctuation is incorrect.

Accurate punctuation in legislative sentences is important. This is discussed more fully in Module 3B, Section 3. Not only does it make sentences easier to read, but punctuation wrongly used may confuse or even result in an unintended result. The following punctuation mistakes are among the most common. (An incorrect mark is shown by "[ ]"; a correct mark by "{ }").

  • Comma dividing subject from verb in a predicate

Example 10

A person who contravenes this section[,] commits an offence.

No punctuation mark should be used; the subject must not be separated from the predicate.

  • Comma omitted after an introductory clause or phrase

Example 11

In this Act{,} "dog" includes wolf.

A comma marks off an introductory adverbial phrase from the principal clause.

  • Punctuation for dividing a compound sentence omitted

Example 12

A person aggrieved by the decision of a council may appeal to the Minister{;} the Minister's decision is final.

A semi-colon indicates where two linked principal clauses in the same sentence are to be separated.

  • Second comma omitted at the end of a parenthetical phrase

Example 13

A person who drops litter, except into a litter bin{,} commits an offence.

The second comma indicates the end of a parenthetical phrase in a sentence, here a qualifying phrase between the subject and predicate.

  • Apostrophe in the possessive "its"

Example 14

The chairman of the Board shall convene the meetings of {its} [it's] members.

"it's" is a contraction of "it is", not a possessive; such contractions are not used in legislation.

  • No comma, or an unnecessary comma, in a series of words

Example 15

In this Act, "animal" means a cat{,} dog{,} sheep{,} goat[,] or cow.

A comma is not usually provided immediately before the conjunction (here “or”) in a series. However, this practice varies among linguistic communities.



Your work on this Section should have brought home to you the importance of following prevailing conventions relating to grammar and syntax. You should be more aware of the kinds of mistake that you need to watch out for and where to look if you are uncertain about standard practice.

In particular, at the end of this Section, you should be able:

  • to explain the basic terms used to describe the features of grammar and the concepts to which they refer;
  • to avoid a number of common errors of grammar.

Read through the Essential Questions at the beginning of this Section. Are you satisfied that you have met the Section Objectives?

The Examples in this Section illustrate many of the required features of sound grammar and syntax. If you have not done so already, use these to confirm your understanding of the correct way to put the rules of sentence structure into effect.

You may not have all the terms examined in this Section at your fingertips. Don't feel that that is necessary, as long as you are reasonably sure about most of them. When you come across any of the terms again in later Modules, ask yourself whether you know what function it performs. If you are unclear, then check the matter in this Section. Similarly, if in working with later Modules you do not understand why a particular grammatical point is made check this matter too by reference to this Section or a standard work on grammar.

Appendix 1 - Grammar Checklist

This Checklist summarises the common grammatical mistakes we have just examined. Use it as a reminder of things to avoid.

  1. Is the verb in every predicate complete?
  2. Does every verb agree with its subject in number?
  3. Are all required pronouns present, and are they unambiguous?
  4. Are all modifiers placed accurately in the sentence so that none gives rise to ambiguity?
  5. Are all prepositions correct and in the places they should be?
  6. Are the articles (definite and indefinite) all present and correct?
  7. Is all the punctuation correct? In particular:
  1. have you ensured that no comma separates[,] the subject from its verb?
  2. if there are introductory clauses and phrases, have you added a comma at the end of each?
  3. have you added a comma between the principal predicates of compound sentences, or did you use a semi-colon?
  4. have you included a comma at the end of a parenthetical expression that begins with a comma?
  5. is the third person singular possessive (its) in its correct form (without an apostrophe)?
  1. have you added commas after each word, term or expression in a series, except immediately before the final conjunction?

Appendix 2 - List of Grammatical Terms and Usage

The following notes are designed remind you about the terms commonly used in relation for English grammar and their proper usage.

A. Some basic terms

grammar: the rules and practices governing the use of language and the relation between words as they are used in speech and writing in a language.

syntax: the arrangement of words in sentences.

sentence: a set of words, grammatically complete, expressing a statement of some kind. It always has a grammatical subject and a predicate. A legislative sentence always begins with a Capital letter and ends with a full stop (period).

subject: the person or thing about which the sentence makes a statement. It takes the form of a noun or pronouns, to which descriptive modifiers may be added.

predicate: makes a statement states about the subject (for example what the subject does, is or may or must do). It therefore contains a verb.

noun: a word that names or identifies a person, place, concept, act or thing.

pronoun: a single word that refers to a noun (often the subject or a person or thing) that has been earlier mentioned, and is used as a substitute for it.

adjective: a word that modifies a noun.

verb: a word or group of words that expresses the action or state of a noun.

adverb: a word that modifies a noun.

clause: a distinct part of a sentence that contains a subject and a predicate. A clause can be either a principal clause conveying the main subject and action of the sentence or a subordinate (or dependent) clause conveying a subject and action that modify the principal clause.

phrase: a group of words that includes a noun or a verb and may also contain modifiers of the noun or verb.

modifier: an adjective, adverb, phrase or clause that limits the scope of the word, phrase or clause it modifies.

Some of these grammatical features are contained in the following example:

Example 16

When a magistrate commits an accused person for trial before the Supreme Court and a sitting of the Supreme Court is in progress, the magistrate, with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, may commit the accused person for trial on such day during that sitting as he or she may fix.


subject = the magistrate

predicate = may commit [= verb] the accused person for trial on such day during that sitting as he or she [= pronoun]may fix.

phrase = with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecut­ions

clause = When a magistrate [= noun] commits an accused person [= modified noun] for trial before the Supreme Court and a sitting of the Supreme Court is in progress,

B. Terms used for sentences

principal clause: a clause that contains the main subject/predicate of the sentence.

compound sentence: a sentence that contains two or more principal clauses that are linked by a conjunction (for example "and" or "or").

dependent or subordinate clause: a clause that supplements and is subordinate to a principal clause. It modifies the principal clause by setting out conditions, circumstances, limitations, exceptions or qualifications describing when the principal clause takes effect.

Example 17

The following is an example of a compound sentence.

If an examining magistrate has begun to enquire into an offence, the magistrate may adjourn the hearing at any time and, if he or she does so, must remand the accused person.

subordinate clause = If an examining magistrate has begun to enquire into an offence

principal clause = the magistrate may adjourn the hearing at any time, and [= conjunction]

second subordinate clause = if he or she does so,

second principal clause = [the magistrate] must remand the accused person.

C. Terms used for nouns

article: a form of adjective to particularise a noun. The most common are the definite article "the" and the indefinite article "a" or "an" (before a word beginning with a vowel).

relative pronoun: a pronoun linking a subordinate clause to the rest of the sentence (for example "which" or "who").

Example 18

The following sentence includes these terms, although not all cases are identified.

A [= indefinite article] person who [= relative pronoun] is charged with treason must not be admitted to bail except on the [= definite article] order of a Judge [= proper noun].

D. Terms used for verbs

active voice: a verb form that indicates that the subject is acting rather than being acted upon. It often has an object (the thing that the subject acts upon).

passive voice: a verb form that indicates that the subject is acted upon rather than acting. It is often followed by a preposition and a noun, for example stating the person or thing by which the subject is acted upon. It is always made up by an auxiliary verb from the verb to be, followed by the past participle of the main verb.

object:a noun or pronoun that is affected by the action in an active verb.

infinitive: the basic form of the verb which is not attached to any subject. It normally begins with "to".

tense :the form a verb takes to indicate the time when it has effect (for example in the past, present or future).

Auxiliary verb: a verb that combines with the basic form of another verb to express the tense of the latter. (for example "may", "shall", "is", "has").

participle: an adjective made from a verb. It may be a present or a past participle (for example “receiving”; “received”). It can be added to an auxiliary verb from to be to make a verb in the present or passive voice (for example “is receiving”; “has received”).

Example 19

The following sentence includes examples of the use of these terms.

A person who has been committed for trial by a magistrate and who wishes to plead guilty shall serve a notice upon the Registrar; section 25 applies with respect to that person as if that person were committed for sentence.

A person who [verb in passive voice and past tense =] has been [= auxiliary verb] committed [= participle] for trial by [= preposition]a magistrate and who wishes [= verb in active voice and present tense] to plead [= infinitive] guilty [verb in imperative mood =] shall serve a notice [= object] upon the Registrar;

section 25 applies [= indicative mood] with respect to that person as if that person were committed [= subjunctive mood] for sentence.

E. Terms used for modifiers

adjective: a word that explains, describes or qualifies a noun, giving it a more precise or limited meaning.

adjectival phrase: a phrase that explains, describes or qualifies a noun.

adjectival clause: a clause that explains, describes or qualifies a noun.

adverb: a word that explains, describes or qualifies how a verb takes effect, giving it a more precise or limited meaning.

adverbial phrase: a phrase that explains, describes or qualifies a verb.

adverbial clause: a clause that explains, describes or qualifies a verb.

Example 20

The following sentence includes examples of the grammatical elements expressed by some of these terms.

A magistrate before whom an application for bail is made [= adjectival clause] may require the accused [= adjective] person to bring before him persons willing to enter into recognisances on behalf of the accused [= adjectival phrase], as soon as practicable [= adverbial phrase].

F. Miscellaneous terms

preposition: a term which links a noun (or pronoun) with another expression, indicating a particular relationship (for example of time or space) between them.

conjunction: an expression that links words, phrases, clauses or sentences (for example “and”; “or”).

number: the form of a noun, pronoun or verb which indicates whether it is in the singular or the plural.

Example 21

An award of compensation or damages to a complainant under this Act releases the defendant from all other civil proceedings for the same cause.

In Example 21:

  • the following are prepositions: of, to, under, from, for;
  • the following is a conjunction: or;
  • and the form of the subject of the sentence (“an award of compensation or damages”) is in the same number (singular) as the verb by which it is affected (“releases”).

Activity 2

You may wish to repeat the exercise in Exercise 1 to confirm that you no longer have any of the uncertainties that you may have experienced when you first completed it. This will help ensure your familiarity with grammatical terms.