You are here

Tools of Interpretation

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

The policy of uncovering purpose has led to a number of tools of judicial interpretation:

  • More specific terms or conduct are given more weight than general terms or unremarkable conduct. Thus a clause that is separately negotiated and added to a contract will be counted as more significant than a standard term in a form contract.
  • A writing is interpreted as a whole, without undue attention to one clause.
  • Common words and terms are given common meaning; technical terms are given their technical meaning.
  • In the range of language and conduct that helps in interpretation, the courts prefer the following items in the order listed: express terms, course of performance, course of dealing, and usage of trade.
  • If an amount is given in words and figures that differ, the words control.
  • Writing controls over typing; typing controls over printed forms.
  • Ambiguities are construed against the party that wrote the contract.

In this chapter, we have considered a set of generally technical legal rules that spell out the consequences of contracts that are wholly or partially oral or that, if written, are ambiguous or do not contain every term agreed upon. These rules fall within three general headings: the Statute of Frauds, the parol evidence rule, and the rules of interpretation. Obviously, the more attention paid to the contract before it is formally agreed to, the fewer the unforeseen consequences. In general, the conclusion is inescapable that a written contract will avoid a host of problems. Writing down an agreement is not always sensible or practical, but it can probably be done more often than it is. Writing almost fifty years ago—and it is still true—a law professor studying business practices noted the following:

Businessmen often prefer to rely on “a man’s word” in a brief letter, a handshake or “common honesty and decency”—even when the transaction involves exposure to serious risks. Seven lawyers from law firms with business practices were interviewed. Five thought that businessmen often entered contracts with only a minimal degree of advanced planning. They complained that businessmen desire to “keep it simple and avoid red tape” even where large amounts of money and significant risks are involved.…Another said that businessmen when bargaining often talk only in pleasant generalities, think they have a contract, but fail to reach agreement on any of the hard, unpleasant questions until forced to do so by a lawyer. 1

Written contracts do not, to be sure, guarantee escape from disputes and litigation. Sometimes ambiguities are not seen; sometimes they are necessary if the parties are to reach an agreement at all. Rather than back out of the deal, it may be worth the risk to one or both parties deliberately to go along with an ambiguous provision and hope that it never arises to be tested in a dispute that winds up in court.

Nevertheless, it is generally true that a written contract has at least three benefits over oral ones, even those that by law are not required to be in writing. (1) The written contract usually avoids ambiguity. (2) It can serve both as a communications device and as a device for the allocation of power, especially within large companies. By alerting various divisions to its formal requirements, the contract requires the sales, design, quality-control, and financial departments to work together. By setting forth requirements that the company must meet, it can place the power to take certain actions in the hands of one division or another. (3) Finally, should a dispute later arise, the written contract can immeasurably add to proof both of the fact that a contract was agreed to and of what its terms were.


It is not uncommon for the meaning of a contract to be less than entirely clear. When called upon to interpret the meaning of a contract, courts try to give it the meaning the parties intended when they made it. Various tools of interpretation are used.

Businesspeople usually do not like to seem overbearing; they do not wish to appear untrusting; they often dislike unpleasantries. Therefore it is not uncommon for even big deals to be sealed with a handshake. But it’s a trade-off, because a written contract has obvious benefits, too.


  1. Why do courts fairly frequently have to interpret the meaning of contracts?
  2. What is the purpose of contractual interpretation?
  3. What tools do the courts use in interpreting contracts?
  4. What is the social “cost” of insisting upon a written contract in a business setting? What are the benefits of the contract?