Editing Tip

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I sent in some comments on a particular proposal, a day before the deadline, and got the message:

The Committee will consider all comments received after the comment period closes.

If only English were a computer programming language (or a system of algebraic notations), we could avoid ambiguities like this, because we'd write something like,

The Committee will consider (all comments received after the comment period closes).

or

(The Committee will consider all comments received) after the comment period closes.

And there would be an unambiguous default rule that indicates how things would be understood without the parentheses (as with the order-of-operation rules in algebraic notation). But, alas, you can't do that in English, so you need to proofread your sentences carefully to see how they might be misinterpreted.

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  1. You could easily write it as “After the comment period closes, the committee will consider all comments received.”

    Much clearer IMO.

    1. This resolves the ambiguity but is harder on the reader because it forces them to hold a concept in mind before being introduced to the subject. There’s an easier solution:

      “The Committee will consider received comments after the comment period closes.”

      The ambiguity is because “received” can be a temporal description (it describes an event that happened), and is immediately followed by an expressly temporal descriptor (“after”). Just separate those two and it should solve the ambiguity, right?

      1. “The Committee will consider received comments” is redundant – the committee is certainly not going to consider unreceived comments.

        I prefer the lost art of the appropriately placed comma: “The Committee will consider all comments received, after the comment period closes.”

        Funny how 2nd amendment scholars repeatedly get burned by those commas, or lack thereof.

        In reality I think that this is a lot less ambiguous than it seems. “The Committee: a)will consider all comments received; b) will consider them after the comment period closes.” (a) is highly likely to be true, unless there is some filtering criteria which would allow them to simply ignore comments. Don’t confuse “consideration” though with an actual response. (b) is also highly likely true since that’s how committees taking comments usually operate. There is no point considering comments piecemeal. And: all comments typically need to be considered fairly with all other comments. So, one collects them all up, schedules a meeting, then forwards them as an agenda item. Where a response is required the committee formulates a response collectively. Chances are multiple people submit the same comment. The “consideration” process means that they all get the same equal treatment after all comments have been received.

        So, given my prior that I think a) and b) are true, the comma or alternative wording is somewhat unnecessary.

        1. There is by the way yet another interpretation of “The Committee will consider all comments received after the comment period closes.” – which is that the committee will consider only those comments that are received after the comment period closes. lol. Highly absurd, how would you even submit those comments?

        2. “…is redundant – the committee is certainly not going to consider unreceived comments.”

          I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but then you can resolve the entire ambiguity by just removing the redundancy.

          “The Committee will consider comments after the comment period closes”

          Your version (with the comma) still has an ambiguity. Is it saying that the committee will consider all comments, but only once the comment period has closed? Or is it saying that, at the moment the comment period closes, the committee will consider all comments as having been received?

          1. “Your version (with the comma) still has an ambiguity. Is it saying that the committee will consider all comments, but only once the comment period has closed? Or is it saying that, at the moment the comment period closes, the committee will consider all comments as having been received?”

            I agree that is a possible interpretation. Its not necessarily exclusive of my interpretation. After the comment period closes, the committee “receives” them and then proceeds to “consider” them. or not, Maybe they consider them received, and then dump them in the trash and ignore them. Some committees do in fact do this, or so it seems.

      2. Really the ambiguity stems from having “received” next to “after.”

        So you don’t have to remove the “all” as you did here. For example, “The Committee will consider all received comments after the comment period closes.”

      3. it forces them to hold a concept in mind before being introduced to the subject

        And that’s why normal humans have a 7 element hardware stack in the neural tissues underlying their short-term memory: so they’re able to hold up to 7 dependencies unresolved, and resolve them correctly as the inherently sequential information channel (speech & listening to it) delivers the remaining input.

        1. That doesn’t make the formulation optimal.

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  2. I remember wanting parens as a kid; I just couldn’t figure out how to speak them.

  3. Hmm…maybe they mean what they say: feel free to submit comments after the comment period expires? Or, maybe the same people who write news chyrons wrote this too?

  4. Sometimes a well-placed comma is enough. startmuffin suggested inverting the clauses, “After the comment period closes, the committee will consider all comments received.” But we could also be very clear with ,
    “The committee will consider all comments received, after the comment period closes and not before.”

  5. “The committee will consider comments received once the comment period closes.”

    1. That’s how my editor would have fixed it.

  6. How about: The committee will consider all comments received. The committee will begin its deliberations after the close of the comment period.

    1. its not made clear that the ‘deliberations’ concern the comments at all here.

  7. But if English were made unambiguous we’d see massive unemployment in the legal industry.

    Not to mention losing a good source for comedic material.

  8. I doubt that the committee will ever really consider the comments, no matter when they were received.

    1. Heh. So, you’re suggesting that it read, “The Committee will ignore all received comments. Therefore, comments received before the comment period ends, and, after the comment period ends, will be considered equally.” Sounds good to me . . . with the benefit of being more truthful.

  9. > If only English were a computer programming language (or a system of algebraic notations), we could avoid ambiguities like this….

    That would be handy for writing unambiguous laws as well. Combined with a compiler, inconsistent and contradictory laws could be identified and prevented!

    1. Yeah, but then Kurt G?del’s incompleteness theorems strike: in particular, the first incompleteness theorem states that for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers (for example Peano arithmetic), there are true propositions about the naturals that cannot be proved from the axioms.

      Translated to laws: an automated law-delivery system would never reach some decisions which are true solutions to some particular law problems.

      And there are other reasons for not having a contradiction-free system of laws: see John Hasnas’ essay The Myth of the Rule of Law.

  10. The ambiguity is the committee’s way of telling you that reading your comments is no guarantee it will comprehend them.

  11. Comments submitted from [date of comment period opening] to [date of comment period closing] will be considered upon closing of the comment period.

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