Expressing Universality


One of the fundamental characteristics of laws is that they address groups of people, if not the country as a whole. They are, accordingly, drafted to speak in a universal way rather than to particular individuals.  This article discusses how to achieve this universality of address.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, drafting in the singular is generally preferred to the plural as the best way to achieve universality while minimizing ambiguity. As Dick says, "[t]his sidesteps the question of whether the 'legal action' or 'predicate' applies separately to each member of the class mentioned or jointly to the class as a whole." [1]

The preference for the singular[2] is not in contradiction with the need to make legislative provisions apply universally. According to Quirk, the distinction between singular and plural, though important for specific reference, tends to be less crucial for generic reference, because generic reference is used to denote a class or species generally.[3] Further support for drafting in the singular is provided by subsection 33(2) of the Interpretation Act, which states that "words in the singular include the plural, and words in the plural include the singular."

Universality in legislation can be said to be expressed either in relation to all the members of a given class or in relation to everyone.[4] In either case, an accurate description of the subject depends on the judicious use of determiners such as a, an, any, every, each, all and no, and of pronouns such as everyone and anyone.

Discussion and examples

The discussion and examples that follow are meant as a guide. The article refrains from making specific recommendations, but rather sets out the various options available to legislative counsel when drafting a legislative text and the reasons why one option or another may be preferable in certain cases, depending on the intended meaning or the desired emphasis. The choice often seems intuitive, but perhaps only because the reasons for it have been so well assimilated that we no longer need to think about them.

1. Expressing universality in relation to a class

Singular indefinite articles: a, an

A, an

The singular indefinite article "a" or "an" is the first determiner a drafter should consider when referring to the subject of a provision, whether that subject is a person or a thing. Quirk tells us that the indefinite article, used generically, denotes any representative member of a class.[5] Driedger points out that grammatically the indefinite article does not necessarily express universality, but that if an enactment is regarded as being addressed to each member of the community individually, the indefinite article has universal effect.[6] As the examples below illustrate, the indefinite article in many cases can do the job quite well, whether the provision is conferring a power, privilege or right, imposing an obligation or prohibition, or setting out a rule of law:

Other determiners: any, each, every, all, no


"Any" indicates an indefinite amount or number and therefore can be used with both the singular and the plural. According to Quirk, it can be substituted for the indefinite article "a" or "an" when that article is used generically. However, Driedger, Thornton and Dick all advise that "any" should be eschewed when a simple indefinite article will do. In the examples below (which, like the others, have been drawn from existing legislation), "any" could easily be replaced with an indefinite article without a change in meaning:

However, "any" is useful in the following ways.

Since one of its meanings is "it doesn't matter which/who/what",[7] it can be used to emphasize generality, free choice or randomness. In the examples below, that emphasis would be lost if "any" were replaced with the indefinite article. It is up to the drafter to decide whether the emphasis is important.

Because of its generalizing function, "any" can be useful in provisions that confer a right, privilege or power to all the members of a class, because it leaves no doubt that any one of the members – and, by extension, all the members – may exercise that right, privilege or power[8]:

Since "any" can also mean "if there is/are any" or "whatever there is/are",[9] it is useful in provisions such as the following:

Each, every

Quirk states that "each" and "every" are distributive, because they consider the members of a set singly rather than as a group, and that apart from that they are often equivalent to "all" .[11] Indeed, in certain contexts, any of these determiners can be used without a change in the essential meaning:

In other contexts, however, "each" and "every" are preferable to "all" because they make it possible to avoid ambiguity:

In some cases, "each" and "every" can be used interchangeably without an appreciable difference in meaning:

However, differences do exist between "each" and "every" that at times make one preferable over the other.

"Every" can have a generic interpretation[12] that brings it closer to "all" in meaning and makes it a more appropriate choice when we are thinking of people or things together, as a group. It is therefore useful when we want to refer to all the members of a class while retaining the precision of the singular:

Conversely, although "each" and "every" are both distributive, the distributive meaning is stronger with "each" , and this makes it more appropriate when we are thinking of people or things separately, one at a time, rather than collectively:[13]

"Each" is also the appropriate determiner when we are referring to one of not more than two people or things:

Just as he does with "any" in relation to the expression of a right, privilege or power, Dick advises using "each" to express an obligation imposed on every member of a class, if the indefinite article seems inadequate. Thornton advises using "every" for this purpose. As we have seen, however, the choice is really up to the drafter, and depends on the desired emphasis. The three examples that follow use different determiners to express an obligation. All three choices are correct. It is the emphasis that changes.


"All" is used to describe quantities of more than two. It can be used in legislation for clarity and emphasis when the plural is appropriate in the context and precision is not at issue:


This negative determiner can be used, with a positive verb, to emphasize a negative idea that could also be expressed using a positive determiner and a negative verb. The examples below show both options. Once again, the choice is the legislative counsel's.

The definite article: the[14]


The definite article indicates identifiability. It can be used to denote universality in a noun phrase where the subject is identifiable and the identifiability is associated with uniqueness:[15]

2. Expressing universality in relation to everyone

When the law applies to every member of society rather than to every member of a particular class, universality is expressed using the terms "a person", "any person", "every person", "no person", "anyone", "everyone" [16] and "no one". In some cases, more than one of these terms is suitable:

3. Plural nouns

There are some cases – usually when the provision does not create a rule of conduct – in which it is acceptable to use the plural to express universality or some other general idea. Some examples were provided under "All" above. Below are others: [17]

Preambles and purpose provisions

Application provisions

Empowering provisions

4. Some thoughts about the French practice[19]

It is worth mentioning, for the sake of legislative counsel who are new to co-drafting, that, in French, the rules governing the expression of universality are not the same as in English. For example, the preferred determiner for this purpose in French is the definite rather than the indefinite article, and it can be used in either the singular or the plural. In French, the existence of grammatical genders and the use of subject-verb and subject-adjective agreement often make it possible to achieve clarity whether the legal subject is singular or plural. Other differences in drafting conventions and in the operation of the language sometimes result in provisions that look rather different from their English counterparts but share the same meaning. Below are some examples:

A person must not ...
Il est interdit de ...
A person who commits an offence under section ... is liable ...
L'auteur d'une infraction à l'article ... est passible ...
A regulation made under paragraph ... has no effect until ...
Les règlements pris en vertu de l'alinéa ... n'ont d'effet qu'à compter de ...
Any of the powers, duties or functions established under ...
Les attributions conférées en vertu de ...
Each member of the Board other than the Chairperson and the Executive Vice-Chairperson shall be assigned ...
Les membres, autres que le président et le premier vice-président, sont affectés ...
Everyone (every person, any person) who commits an offence ...
Quiconque commet une infraction ...
No offender referred to in subsection (1) is required to serve more than one half of the offender's sentence ...
Le temps d'épreuve ne peut en aucun cas excéder la moitié de son temps d'emprisonnement.