Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 14, 2008


David Foster Wallace, in his staggering book on the mathematical concept of infinity, Everything and More, provides a story showing how words can make math ambiguous.

"Three men check into a motel late at night. There's only one room left, and it costs $30, and the men decide to each chip in $10 and share it, but when they get up to the room it's a disgusting mess--apparently there was some mixup and the room never got cleaned after the last people checked out--and understandably the men call down to the manager to complain.


"After a certain amount of back and forth the manager agrees to knock $5 off the price of the room and to supply clean linens, and he sends a bellboy up to the room with the linens and towels and the $5 refund in the form of five $1 bills. ... [T]here's five $1 bills and three guys, so what the guys ... do is they each take back one dollar and let the bellboy keep the remaining $2 as a tip. So each man originally paid $10 and got $1 back, meaning each paid $9, which adds up to $27, and the bellboy has the other $2, which altogether sums to $29, so where's the other dollar?" (p. 34.)

Foster concludes: "[T]he point is that the verbiage ... lulls you into fuzzily trying to calculate (30 - 3) + 2 instead of the apposite (30 - 5) + (3 + 2), resulting in much confusion and mirth..." (pp. 34-35.)

Similarly, language can make the law ambiguous and sometimes intentionally so. For example, words like "reasonable" or other adjectives can be subject to considerable interpretation. Often legislation is drafted to keep such ambiguity inherent in the words to allow for judicial interpretation of such terms in the factual context of particular cases. Likewise, advocates can use adjectives and adverbs to hedge. When you see a legal brief replete with adjectives and adverbs you have to wonder what is being hidden and why.