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Drafting contracts

(b) Keep subject and verb together – left-right principle

SVO. The English language follows the subject-verb-object (svo-) order rather strictly. Sentences are easier understood if the actor (the subject) and the determination of his action (the verb) are close together at the beginning of the sentence. You require the reader to hold out long when you create unnecessary gaps between the subject and the verb. The Dutch and Germans have the patience for that. If the sentence also contains an object, this would be best positioned early on in the sentence but always after the subject and the verb. Sometimes, this should be achieved by turning the intervening words into a separate sentence or by moving them to the beginning or end of the sentence.

Left-right principle. You will make reading easier if you formulate the sentence such that it reads from a known or familiar context into the main message. In many languages, the unguided reader will read to the end of a sentence in an (unspoken) ascending or descending tone. At the end of the sentence, where the tone reaches the peak (or bottom), the reader unconsciously ‘seeks’ the most important information. This is called the left-right principle and may help the writer structuring a text and each sentence. If the most important information is halfway the sentence, the reader may miss the importance or even the entire point. This left-right principle somewhat discords with how people think: a normal person starts with the main point and then deals with the exceptions and limitations. You would make it the reader comfortable by first driving your point home. A technique to redress this discordance is to limit the information to introducing only one or two ‘new things’ per sentence. In line with this, use the natural order in which sequences are commonly experienced. An example of a messy sequence:

… to use, sell, have sold, manufacture, have manufactured, modify, have modified, distribute and have distributed the Licensed Product.

Obviously, a product is not first used, then sold, then manufactured et cetera. Many people are able to reproduce even a long sequence if it is logic. Furthermore, bring together the items that relate to each other:

Force Majeure means [acts of God such as earthquake, flood, storm or lightning, fire][accident, explosion, sabotage, war, terrorism, riot, civil disturbance, epidemic

Signalling sentence. Also, it helps to start a paragraph with a signalling sentence addressing the main topic or conclusion and then ‘restart’ the paragraph. The topical paragraph structure could therefore be:

A leads to F. A is followed by B and C. B implies D. C causes E. D and E support the conclusion F.

The left right-right principle also discords with how people perceive other person’s communications: an audience tends to visualise. If you want to prevent that each reader takes his or her own example, start with the right one yourself. Then elaborate on that example to make your point. For example:

The Parties shall use best efforts to have the Conditions satisfied as soon as practicable.  In particular, Purchaser shall, in respect of the Condition in Article 2.1(c):  (a) make appropriate filings …; and (b) propose all such remedies as ….

In the example, the first sentence states the main principle. This makes reading the subsequent sentence easier. It would be understood as an elaboration on the principle of best efforts. Note, however, that if you replace in particular by the word furthermore (or in addition), the second sentence converts into a firm obligation standing on its own (!)

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