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13.3 Interpretation of Agreements: Practicalities versus Legalities

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the purpose of contractual interpretation.
  2. Know the tools courts use to interpret contracts.
  3. Recognize that in everyday life, businesspeople tolerate oral contracts or poorly written ones, but a writing remains useful.

The General Problem and the Purpose of Contractual Interpretation

The General Problem

As any reader knows, the meaning of words depends in part on context and in part on the skill and care of the writer. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once succinctly noted, “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”Towne v. Eisner, 245 US 418, 425 (1917). Words and phrases can be ambiguous, either when they stand alone or when they take on a different coloration from words and phrases near them. A writer can be careless and contradict himself without intending to; people often read hurriedly and easily miss errors that a more deliberate perusal might catch. Interpretation difficulties can arise for any of a number of reasons: a form contract might contain language that is inconsistent with provisions specifically annexed; the parties might use jargon that is unclear; they might forget to incorporate a necessary term; assumptions about prior usage or performance, unknown to outsiders like judges, might color their understanding of the words they do use. Because ambiguities do arise, courts are frequently called on to give content to the words on paper.

The Basic Rule of Interpretation

Courts attempt to give meaning to the parties’ understanding when they wrote the contract.

The intention of the parties governs, and if their purpose in making the contract is known or can be ascertained from all the circumstances, it will be given great weight in determining the meaning of an obscure, murky, or ambiguous provision or a pattern of conduct. A father tells the college bookstore that in consideration of its supplying his daughter, a freshman, with books for the coming year, he will guarantee payment of up to $350. His daughter purchases books totaling $400 the first semester, and he pays the bill. Midway through the second semester, the bookstore presents him with a bill for an additional $100, and he pays that. At the end of the year, he refuses to pay a third bill for $150. A court could construe his conduct as indicating a purpose to ensure that his daughter had whatever books she needed, regardless of cost, and interpret the contract to hold him liable for the final bill.

Tools of Interpretation

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.Stewart Macaulay, “Non-contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study,” American Sociological Review 28, no. 1 (1963): 58–59.

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.

Key Takeaway

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?