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3.4A Legislation: Using paragraphs to enhance readability and clarity

See 3.4 of the Checklist

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Note: On this page, "paragraph" is used in a way that is specific to legislation. See 3.4B Using paragraphs to enhance readability and clarity for guidance on using paragraphs in general documents.


Paragraphs—General principles for all documents

Paragraphs enhance the readability and clarity of everything we write, whether it is an email or legislation.

They help us to—

  • group ideas into logical and manageable chunks
  • arrange ideas so that the relationship between those ideas is obvious
  • reduce the length and density of the text (ie, by breaking the text into manageable chunks) (see also 6.11 of the Checklist)
  • increase the amount of white space on the page.

Paragraphs, subparagraphs, and subsubparagraphs in legislation

Paragraphing is an effective technique for presenting complicated legislative sentences in a digestible state.

Careful paragraphing makes legislation plainer by—

  • making the structure of sentences more apparent to readers
  • avoiding needless repetition
  • removing ambiguity.

Example 1 shows a sentence in unparagraphed form. Example 2 shows it in paragraphed form:

Example 1—A sentence in unparagraphed form

cross.gif The registration requirements for every superannuation scheme (in addition to those in section 127) are that it must be a trust established and governed by a trust deed that is interpreted and administered in accordance with New Zealand law, its purpose must be to provide retirement benefits directly or indirectly to individuals, it must be a defined benefit scheme or a scheme under which contributions are allocated to scheme participants on an individual basis and the benefits provided by the scheme must be fully funded as they accrue, it must meet any additional requirements of the superannuation scheme rules that apply to it under the regulations, and it must not be registered as a KiwiSaver scheme.

The reader has to work too hard to make sense of this sentence because it contains numerous complex concepts that are difficult to consider all at once.

A drafter should consider breaking a complex list like this into paragraphs (or use another technique to shorten the sentence). Paragraphs allow the reader to see each distinct concept at a glance and they make the message less intimidating and easier to understand (see 6.10 of the Checklist, which relates to blocks of text.)

The meaning of the sentence in Example 1 is also potentially unclear. Is it clear which schemes are modified by the words “the benefits provided by the scheme must be fully funded …”? Do the words refer only to the “scheme under which contributions are allocated …” or do they also modify the reference to a defined benefit scheme?

Example 2—Improving clarity by using paragraphs

tick.gif Every superannuation scheme must meet the following registration requirements in addition to those in section 127:
  (a) it must be a trust established and governed by a trust deed that is interpreted and administered in accordance with New Zealand law; and
  (b) its purpose must be to provide retirement benefits directly or indirectly to individuals; and
  (c) it must be—
    (i) a defined benefit scheme; or
    (ii) a scheme under which contributions are allocated to scheme participants on an individual basis and the benefits provided by the scheme must be fully funded as they accrue; and
  (d) it must meet any additional requirements of the superannuation scheme rules that apply to it under the regulations; and
  (e) it must not be registered as a KiwiSaver scheme.

Breaking long sentences into 2 or more sentences

A good alternative to paragraphing may be to break the sentence into 2 or more sentences. However, this may have the following disadvantages:

  • needless repetition
  • separating matters that should logically be considered together.

How to write paragraphs well

Paragraphing is a flexible tool for writing legislation plainly. To use the tool effectively,—

  • don’t use paragraphs unnecessarily (see Example 3)
  • avoid sandwiches (see Examples 4 to 8)
  • ensure that paragraphs flow naturally and grammatically from the stem
  • take care with paragraphs that end with a different conjunction (moving between “and” and “or” can sometimes cause confusion or complexity) (see Example 9)
  • take care with a series of 2 or more complex lists in a single sentence (see Example 9)
  • take care that conjunctions (or colons) are unambiguous (see Examples 10 to 12)
  • take care with em rules and colons (see Example 13)
  • avoid fragmentation (see Examples 14 to 16).

Unnecessary use or overuse of paragraphs

Avoid using broken-out paragraphs for simple lists. If the text in each paragraph is very short, the structure will already be clear to the reader. Overusing paragraphs can seem artificial to the reader and break the flow of the text:

Example 3—Unnecessary paragraphs

cross.gif animal means
  (a) a cat; or                           
  (b) a dog; or                         
  (c) a bird                          
tick.gif animal means a cat, a dog, or a bird

Sandwiches

Using the structure known as the “sandwich” has generally been discouraged in New Zealand and in many other jurisdictions. The structure was used in New Zealand legislation in the past, and double sandwiches were not uncommon.

A sandwich often breaks the rule about getting to the main point early. It can also result in complicated structures:

Example 4—Paragraphs sandwiched in a provision

cross.gif Where—
  (a) the Council has served a notice that ...; and
  (b) the time specified in the notice has passed; and
  (c) the Council considers that the licence-holder …,—
  the Council may suspend the licence.

The sandwich structure can be avoided by putting the main point first:

Example 5—Sandwich removed and main point put first

tick.gif The Council may suspend the licence if—
  (a) it has served a notice that ...; and
  (b) the time specified in the notice has passed; and
  (c) it considers that the licence-holder …

A sandwich sometimes separates a verb phrase, resulting in an unnecessarily complicated structure:

Example 6—Sandwich separates verb phrase

cross.gif Where an application for registration is made, the Registrar must, unless the Registrar is satisfied that—
  (a) the application fails to comply with section 5; or
  (b) the applicant is disqualified under section 14; or
  (c) the applicant is likely to breach 1 or more conditions of registration,—
  register the applicant.

Example 7—Sandwich removed to keep verb phrase together

tick.gif Where an application for registration is made, the Registrar must register the applicant unless the Registrar is satisfied that—
  (a) the application fails to comply with section 5; or
  (b) the applicant is disqualified under section 14; or
  (c) the applicant is likely to breach 1 or more conditions of registration.

However, in some cases a sandwich may be helpful. For example, where—

  • it is better to express the conditions before the action (because the action closely “hooks into” the concepts in those conditions); and
  • only 2 or 3 very short paragraphs separate the opening and closing words:

Example 8—Sandwich with short condition

tick.gif If—
  (a) any goods are exported or brought into New Zealand for the purpose of being exported; and
  (b) export of the goods is, or would be, contrary to a prohibition or restriction under this Act,—
  the goods may be forfeited and any person knowingly concerned in the export, or intended export, of the goods commits an offence.

You should discuss the matter with your team manager before you use a sandwich structure.

Sentence divided into series of 2 or more complex lists

Dividing a sentence into a series of 2 or more lists can sometimes make it more difficult to read. This is particularly true if—

  • the subject matter of each list in the series is already complex or should logically be considered separately
  • the paragraphs end in a different conjunction.

The sentence in Example 9 involves—

  • a separate list in each of paragraphs (a), (b), (c), and (d). Paragraph (a) lists the conditions for an agreement to be a derivative. Paragraph (b) lists transactions that are included. Paragraph (c) lists transactions that are excluded. Paragraph (d) lists the requirements for another agreement to be excluded
  • paragraph (a) includes subsubparagraphs (a “red flag” for complexity)
  • paragraphs ending in different conjunctions or with colons.

The concepts in the definition in Example 9 are already inherently complex. The paragraphing compounds that complexity:

Example 9

cross.gif In this Act, derivative
  (a) means an agreement in relation to which the following conditions are satisfied:
    (i) under the agreement, a party to the agreement must, or may be required to, provide at some future time consideration of a particular kind or kinds to another person; and
    (ii) that future time is not less than the time, prescribed for the purposes of this subparagraph, after the time at which the agreement is entered into; and
    (iii) the amount of the consideration, or the value of the agreement, is ultimately determined, is derived from, or varies by reference to (wholly or in part) the value or amount of something else (of any nature whatsoever and whether or not deliverable), including, for example, 1 or more of the following:
      (A) an asset:                                                                 
      (B) a rate (including an interest rate of exchange rate):                          
      (C) an index:                                                                 
      (D) a commodity; and                                                                 
  (b) includes a transaction that is recurrently entered into in the financial markets in New Zealand or overseas and is commonly referred to in those markets as—
    (i) a futures contract or forward; or
    (ii) an option (other than an option to acquire by way of issue an equity security, a debt security, or a managed investment product); or
    (iii) a swap agreement; or
    (iv) a contract for difference, margin contract, or rolling spot contract; or
    (v) a cap, collar, floor, or spread; but
  (c) does not include—
    (i) an agreement for the future provision of services; or
    (ii) a debt security, an equity security, or a managed investment product; and
  (d) does not include an agreement in relation to which all of the following subparagraphs are satisfied:
    (i) a party has, or may have, an obligation to buy, and another party has, or may have, an obligation to sell, property (other than financial products or New Zealand or foreign currency) at a price and on a date in the future; and
    (ii) the agreement does not permit the seller’s obligations to be wholly settled by cash, or by set-off between the parties, rather than by delivery of the property; and
    (iii) neither usual market practice nor the rules of a market permit the seller’s obligations to be closed out by the matching up of the agreement with another agreement of the same kind under which the seller has offsetting obligations to buy.

A reader may find the definition easier to understand if it were broken up into subsections. For example,—

  • subsection (1) sets out what derivative means
  • subsection (2) states what the term also includes
  • subsections (3) and (4) state what the term does not include (despite subsections (1) and (2)).

This approach also helps highlight the relationship between the various parts of the definition.

Avoid ambiguity when using colons

A paragraph may end with a colon instead of “; or” or “; and” if it is clear from the stem that the paragraphs are not necessarily cumulative or alternative:

Example 10—Ending paragraphs with colons

tick.gif Specialty bread is bread that contains 1 or more of the following:
  (a) fruit:
  (b) nuts (including seeds):
  (c) flavouring:
  (d) spices:
  (e) the colouring substance caramel.            

But colons must be unambiguous:

Example 11—Colon that creates ambiguity

cross.gif The Minister may, after receiving a final report,—
  (a) either—
    (i) accept A’s recommendation; or                                                                             
    (ii) reject A’s recommendation:                                                                                         
  (b) require A to reconsider its recommendation for any reasons specified by the Minister.

Can the Minister both accept a recommendation under paragraph (a)(i) (eg, as a short-term solution) and also refer the recommendation back for reconsideration of a longer-term solution under paragraph (b)?

In this case, the colon in paragraph (a)(ii) causes uncertainty. A colon is not equivalent to “and/or”. “1 or more of the following” cannot simply be “read in” to the stem when a colon is used.

The intent can be made clear by changing the preceding words or re-arranging the structure. If it is the intention that the Minister may do both, the provision could be reformulated as follows:

Example 12—Ambiguity in example 11 resolved

tick.gif The Minister may, after receiving a final report, do either or both of the following:
  (a) accept or reject A’s recommendation (in whole or in part):
  (b) require A to reconsider its recommendation for any reasons specified by the Minister.

Colons and em rules

Use a colon at the end of the stem that introduces a series of paragraphs if “following” or “follows” is used. Otherwise, use an em rule:

Example 13

tick.gif This regulation applies to 1 or more of the following:
tick.gif This regulation applies as follows:
tick.gif This regulation applies to—

Avoid fragmentation

Paragraphs and subparagraphs can have a fragmenting effect on the text (sometimes called “shredding”).

A sentence structure using subsubparagraphs is a “red flag” for complexity:

Example 14—Subsubparagraphs

cross.gif The Valuer-General—
  (a) must make rules that—
    (i) specify the information to be provided by the Commissioner, including—
      (A) information predicting the characteristics of the land:
      (B) assumptions about how the information referred to in subsubparagraph (A) reveals the base carrying capacity:
      (C) other information about the land:
    (ii) specify how … 
  (b) may make rules that—
    (i) provide for …
    (ii) specify how …

To avoid subsubparagraphs (and other examples of shredding) you can—

  • reorganise paragraphs into subsections
  • if the text in the subsubparagraphs is short, keep the text as a narrative list rather than shredding the text into subsubparagraphs:

Example 15—Reorganising paragraphs into subsections

tick.gif (1) The Valuer-General must make rules that —
    (a) specify the information to be provided by the Commissioner, including—
      (i) information predicting the characteristics of the land:
      (ii) assumptions about how the information referred to in subsubparagraph (A) reveals the base carrying capacity:
      (iii) other information about the land:
    (b) specify how …
  (2) The Valuer-General may also make rules that—
    (a) provide for …
    (b) specify how …

Example 16—Moving material into a separate subsection

tick.gif (1) The Valuer-General—
    (a) must make rules that—
      (i) specify the information to be provided by the Commissioner, including the information set out in subsection (2):
      (ii) specify how …
    (b) may make rules that—
      (i) provide for …
  (2) The information referred to in subsection (1)(a)(i) is—
    (a) information predicting the characteristics of the land:
    (b) assumptions about how the information referred to in paragraph (a) reveals the base carrying capacity:
    (c) other information about the land.

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