At a cocktail party, verb tense errors may or may not matter. Fellow guests probably won’t remember how you spoke anyway.
When construing statutes and other binding documents, courts have cared about verb tense. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “Congress’ use of a verb tense is significant in construing statutes.” United States v. Wilson, 503 U.S. 329, 333, (1992).
That makes sense because verb tense indicates timing, which certainly can affect cases involving a condition that triggers a right or duty.
Obviously, lawyers who draft binding documents need to understand verb tense to draft precisely. So do lawyers who don’t draft binding documents but who challenge or defend them on a client’s behalf.
Lawyers seeking guidance from case law (as most of us do) need to understand verb tense if only to understand court opinions that address verb tense. Lawyers who skim past paragraphs containing grammar jargon may miss information about a court’s reasoning.
For good measure, here are two more examples of courts’ addressing a verb’s tense:
(1) A U.S. Supreme Court case involving a criminal conviction under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Carr v. United States, 560 U.S. 438, 448 (2010)).
(2) A Florida Supreme Court case involving a gambling-permit statute (License Acquisitions, LLC v. Debary Real Estate Holdings, LLC, 155 So. 3d 1137, 1145 (Fla. 2014), reh’g denied (Jan. 16, 2015)).
A multi-jurisdictional West search for “verb tense” will render many cases in which the tense was discussed. Of course, verb tense doesn’t matter in all court cases. But tense and other grammatical issues can matter–and when they do, they can be costly to clients.
Verb-tense unawareness is risky. Fortunately, lawyers who need to refresh their recollection can do it easily. It’s as simple as buying a reputable grammar book, such as Harbrace, and spending a little time reading about the topic. Older editions of Harbrace are not expensive on Amazon.
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