Stopping the School Bus: How “Grammatical Analysis” got Mendez off the Hook

Mark Lieberman posted on the Language Log Blog about the curious case in which “grammatical analysis” got John Mendez of Woodbridge, VA off the hook for passing a stopped school bus (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/).

Most people know better than to pass a stopped school bus, but the clever work of Defense Attorney, Eric E. Clingan, persuaded Judge Marcus D. Williams, of the Fairfax County Circuit Court, to acquit Mendez because of the law’s “nonrestrictive modifier.”

Since 1970, the Virginia Law on passing a school bus read:

“A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.”

Clingan called on E. Shelley Reid, Professor of English at George Mason University, to illuminate the grammatical error in the law. Reid asserts that “‘when approaching from any direction’ is a nonrestrictive modifier and can be removed from the sentence.” Without the nonrestrictive modifier, the sentence would read, “A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop any school bus….” Reid argues that the sentence, though weak on meaning, is grammatically correct.

The prosecution’s common-sense, intention-based analysis of the law fell short and Mendez walked.

The point of this short vignette is to reiterate the importance of proper grammar and also to remind you that we have lots of great books in the stacks and reference section to help you brush up, if necessary.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, is a little book, which you likely recall from undergraduate days, filled with tips on usage, composition, style and form:  PE1408 .S772 1999

To dig in deep, check out The Elements of Legal Style by Bryan Garner, in the reference section: KF250 .G37 2002

If you’re not having fun yet, head back to the reference section for Garner’s book, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage KF156 .G367 1995

What about the bigger picture and drafting legislation which fulfills the initial functional purpose? Try Drafting Legislation: a Modern Approach edited by Constantin Stefanou and Helen Xanthaki, which is filled with essays exploring legislative functionality, intent, clarity and actual policy implementation.

Still not satisfied, try a subject heading search in Julien for “Legal Composition;” you’ll find 173 entries.

written by HEC + CAY

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One thought on “Stopping the School Bus: How “Grammatical Analysis” got Mendez off the Hook

  1. Clayton Burns December 6, 2010 / 6:24 pm

    The possibly–but not really–dicey “when approaching from any direction” is a non-finite time clause, so we would want to study the behavior of those clauses, first in the COBUILD English Grammar, and then in the CD for the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a solid corpus product.

    There is good reason for law schools to adapt to corpus linguistics and to stay away from such tips as those in “The Elements of Style.” We now have very powerful tools so that we can avoid arbitrary English, such as in the idea that we could delete “approaching” and then substitute “stop” a school bus. It is a silly misreading. The idea of “approaching” the bus is essential information here. It cannot be erased by arbitrary and inaccurate terminology.

    If any children die as a result of this bizarre sequence of events, then George Mason will have to share much of the blame. As for Clingan’s work, it was not at all clever. He should not have participated in undermining the process of law.

    Clayton Burns PhD Vancouver
    claytonburns@gmail.com

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