Usage and Grammar

Q. I’m a bond lawyer, which means that I regularly draft documents that refer to the debt service on bonds. That includes the principal of the bonds, the redemption premium, if any, on the bonds, and the interest on the bonds. Note that the prepositions attached to these categories of debt service differ: Principal “of,” but premium and interest “on.” My problem is that a common—and old—way of describing the debt service on bonds is, “the principal of, redemption premium, if any, and interest on the bonds.” Because the phrase refers to two classes (i.e., terms that take the preposition “of” and terms that take the preposition “on”) as well as two items within one of those classes (i.e., redemption premium and interest), shouldn’t there be TWO conjunctions (i.e., “the principal of, AND redemption premium, if any, AND interest on the bonds”)? Some drafters use the construction that I have suggested is correct, but many others, citing tradition, use the single-conjunction form. Which is correct?

I realize that this could be considered arcane, but the phrase is used constantly in our documents and is therefore a constant source of annoyance to me. We lawyers need more help than most in matters of style, so you would be doing a great service by answering this query.

A. Bless your heart—everyone agrees that the language of the law needs all the help it can get. In this case, I believe you have found the solution to the problem yourself. In your effort to explain the meaning of the passage to me, you write clearly, “the principal of the bonds, the redemption premium, if any, on the bonds, and the interest on the bonds.” I don’t think I could improve on that. (Maybe from now on you and your colleagues should try to write everything as though you were trying to explain it to me.)

I’m sure your office is familiar with the Plain Language initiative promoted by Vice President Gore in the 1990s. You can find tips and examples for rewriting gobbledygook into understandable English at http://www.plainlanguage.gov/. Check out the section specifically for law. There’s also a section called “Fun Stuff about Plain Language,” which includes activities like “Drafting Legal Documents” and a hot link to the Code of Federal Regulations. (Well, as far as I know, Al Gore never claimed to have invented fun.)