This is the fourth post in a series that annotates with South Carolina law the canons of construction identified in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. In this book, Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner describe a number of canons of construction, including seven syntactical canons. This post quotes these syntactical canons from page xiii of the book and then briefly describes how South Carolina courts treat syntax.
“Grammar — Words are to be given the meaning that proper grammar and usage would assign them.
Last-antecedent — A pronoun, relative pronoun, or demonstrative adjective generally refers to the nearest reasonable referent.
Series-Qualifier — When there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all the nouns or verbs in a series, a prepostive or postpostive modifier normally applies to the entire series.
Nearest-reasonable referent — When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent.
Proviso — A proviso conditions the principal matter that it qualifies — almost always the matter immediately preceding.
Scope-of-subparts — Material within an indented subpart relates only to that subpart; material contained in unindented text relates to all the following or preceding indented subparts.
Punctuation — Punctuation is a permissible indicator of meaning.”
South Carolina agrees that “the phrases and sentences are to be construed according to the rules of grammar. . ..” Poole v. Saxon Mills, 192 S.C. 339, 6 S.E.2d 761, 764 (1940). Yet the Court is also free to change the syntax by rearranging clauses, and putting clauses in the form of provisos, if necessary to give a statute meaning. Gaffney v. Mallory, 186 S.C. 337, 195 S.E. 840, 845-846 (1938).
The South Carolina Supreme Court has further stated that “punctuation is a most fallible standard by which to interpret writing.” State v. Pilot Life Ins. Co., 257 S.C. 383, 391,186 S.E.2d 262, 266 (1972). It at best confirms a statute’s meaning when there is no patent ambiguity and the punctuation gives the statute meaning. Jackson v. South Carolina Tax Comm’n, 192 S.C. 350, 6 S.E.2d 745, 746 (1940).
Has anyone argued from a statute’s or other text’s syntax? Please let us hear from you. You may reach me through the comment box or here.