Legistics
Paragraphing

What is paragraphing?

Paragraphing is a typological device for arranging legislative text. It involves dividing a sentence into grammatical units and arranging them as separate blocks of text.

Paragraphing is hierarchical in the sense that a particular unit may be subdivided into further units. In federal legislation, the numbering and terminology used to refer to units at each level are as follows:

  • paragraph - numbered with italicised lower case letters in round brackets: (a), (b), …
  • subparagraph - numbered with lower case Roman numerals in round brackets: (i), (ii), …
  • clause - numbered with upper case letters in round brackets: (A), (B), …
  • subclause - numbered with upper case Roman numerals in round brackets: (I), (II), …

The following example illustrates the paragraphing hierarchy as well as the punctuation and indentation that is used:

  • 3. (1) Sections and subsections may contain opening words (also called the chapeau or umbrella) followed by other units of text, including:
    • (a) paragraphs, which are called "clauses" in some provincial legislation and may contain opening words followed by other units of text and punctuation, including
      • (i) subparagraphs, which are called "subclauses" in some provincial legislation and may contain opening words followed by other units of text, including
        • (A) clauses, which are called "paragraphs" in some provincial legislation and may contain opening words followed by other units of text and punctuation, including
          • (I) subclauses, which are called "subparagraphs" in some provincial legislation, and
          • (II) a comma at the end, unless the subclauses are at the end of a higher unit of text, and
        • (B) a comma at the end, unless the subparagraphs are at the end of a higher unit of text, and
      • (ii) a semi-colon at the end, unless the paragraph is at the end of a section or subsection; and
    • (b) units of texts found only in clause sandwiches, which, because they
      • (i) have no official name, and
      • (ii) do not correspond to grammatical concepts outside legal discourse,
    • are commonly known as middle sections or mid-ambles (if they divide two series of units of text) and, if a sentence
      • (iii) keeps on going, or
      • (iv) is followed by another sentence within the same section or subsection,
    • the unit that follows is called a bottom or tail section or a post-amble and the numbering of the intervening units continues the numbering from the series of units above the middle section.

Why paragraph?

Paragraphing has three basic functions:

  • it helps the reader understand a lengthy or complex sentence by exposing its structure, particularly showing which grammatical units are parallel to each other;
  • it more clearly indicates how different parts of a sentence relate to each other, avoiding ambiguity about the objects of modifiers such as preposition phrases, relative clauses and adverbial clauses; and
  • it can be used to shorten a text by avoiding repetition.

The readability of text is also improved because paragraphing increases the amount of "white space" on the page. However, it also has disadvantages because

  • it disrupts the flow of reading by putting numbering and breaks in the text;
  • it is seldom used in other types of writing and readers who are not used to reading legal texts may have difficulty understanding how paragraphed units relate to the opening words and each other.

The second of these disadvantages may be waning in so far as readers are becoming increasingly accustomed to seeing text formatted in a bulleted format that reflects much of the logic of traditional paragraphing used in legal texts. In fact, for many readers this is now an argument in favour of using paragraphing.

How do you paragraph?

There are a number of rules for paragraphing legislative texts.

There must be at least 2 parallel units of text.

The parallel units must be preceded by opening words and each unit must be capable of being read grammatically with the opening words. The following example is incorrect:

The Minister may issue a licence

  • (a) before the fishing season begins; and
  • (b) the licence may be revoked at any time for noncompliance with the regulations.

It is incorrect because paragraph (b) does not read grammatically with the opening words.

Each parallel unit must be grammatically equivalent. In other words, it must have the same grammatical function and it must modify the same part of speech in the opening words. The following example is incorrect:

A licence may not be revoked or suspended

  • (a) except with the consent of the holder; or
  • (b) unless notice of intention to revoke or suspend the licence has been given to the holder and the holder has been given a chance to respond to the notice.

It is incorrect because paragraph (a) is a phrase while paragraph (b) is a clause. The next example is also incorrect because paragraph (a) modifies the verb "issue" and paragraph (b) modifies the noun "licence":

The Minister may issue a licence

  • (a) before the fishing season begins; and
  • (b) to catch fish.

Another way to detect a problem with equivalence is to check whether the conjunction between the paragraphs would occur in ordinary speech. In both of the examples just given, it would not be used.

Every modifier in a parallel unit must modify either the same thing in the opening words or something within the parallel unit itself. The following example is incorrect:

Tax is imposed at the scheduled rate on widgets that are

  • (a) manufactured and sold in Canada, and is payable by the manufacturer when the widgets are delivered to a purchaser; and
  • (b) imported, and is payable by the importer when the widgets are imported.

It is incorrect because each paragraph contains elements that relate to two different things in the opening words. The verb phrases beginning with "manufactured" and "imported" relate to the "widgets", while the verb phrases beginning with "is payable" relate to the "tax". The verb phrase "is payable" in paragraph (a) disrupts the reading of paragraph (b), which begins by shifting the focus back to the "widgets". A similar problem occurs when an independent clause is included in a paragraph, as in the following example:

Tax is imposed at the scheduled rate on widgets that are

  • (a) manufactured and sold in Canada, and the manufacturer shall pay the tax when the widgets are delivered to a purchaser; and
  • (b) imported, and the importer shall pay the tax when the widgets are imported.

One way to test whether problems of this sort exist is to try reading provisions without the paragraph divisions. If the syntax is ungrammatical, there are problems.

A parallel unit may refer to things mentioned in the previous unit, as in the following example:

The Minister may issue a licence that

  • (a) is valid for fishing on a boat described in the licence; and
  • (b) specifies the maximum number of fish that the boat may carry.

Parallel units may not contain complete sentences, as in the following example:

The Minister may issue a licence that

  • (a) is valid for fishing on a boat described in the licence; and
  • (b) specifies the maximum number of fish that may be caught each day.

The Minister may reduce the maximum number if the licence-holder catches more than that number of fish.

The sentence in paragraph (b) should be moved into a bottom section or another subsection as follows:

The Minister may issue a licence that

  • (a) is valid for fishing on a boat described in the licence; and
  • (b) specifies the maximum number of fish that may be caught each day.

The Minister may reduce the maximum number if the licence-holder catches more than that number of fish.

The parallel units may be followed by a middle or bottom section (resulting in a "clause sandwich"), but each unit must be capable of being read grammatically with the middle or bottom section, or else the middle or bottom section must be a complete sentence.

Parallel units are all indented alike from the opening words and numbered in the same series.

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