LawProse Lesson #262: The plural of “attorney general.”

What’s the plural of attorney general? The answer is attorneys general, not *attorney generals. (The asterisk signifies an always-erroneous form.)

A federal judge in New York recently tried to defend his use of the incorrect plural, likening it to brigadier generals. But the analogy is misbegotten: brigadier general denotes a type of military general—and general is the noun.

In attorneys general, by contrast, general is the adjective (called a “postpositive adjective” because it appears after its noun—a remnant of Romance language syntax). Essentially, ...

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LawProse Lesson #261: Tinkering for tightening.

Most professional writing (the type you see in major newsmagazines) is tight; most legal writing isn’t. You want a tip on tightening? After you have a fairly polished draft, look at the last line, half-line, or quarter-line of every paragraph. Play with the paragraph to try to shorten it by one line. It’s a little editorial game you can play, and it works. An example:

A few cases tend to suggest that if a plaintiff’s own inexcusable neglect was responsible for ...

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LawProse Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms.

Acronyms and Initialisms.

Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.

This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if ...

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LawProse Lesson #259: Friendly banter about “amicus.”

The phrase amicus curiae and its shortened form amicus raise several tricky linguistic questions. How are they pluralized? How are the singular and plural forms pronounced? What’s the preferred singular possessive form? Should the phrase be italicized? How often is the translation friend of the court used by comparison? What’s the history of the phrase in English?

Let’s take the last question first. Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) shows that the phrase amicus curiae first appeared in English-language contexts in ...

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LawProse Lesson #258: What’s the plural of Evans?

What’s the plural of Evans?

You have some friends, Bob and Sally Evans. As a couple, they are the __________. (How do you pluralize their last name?) Sometimes, you go to their house: that’s called the __________ house. (Can you make the plural possessive?) There, you see Bob __________ coin collection. (Make the singular possessive.)

If you get those three blanks right, you’re a top one-percenter. Few people know how to handle these issues the way professional editors would. Before glancing below ...

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LawProse Lesson #257: Statutes and Judicial Opinions

Statutes and Judicial Opinions: When, in Time, Do They Begin and End?

In the Beginning. The traditional view is that statutes are prospective only, but judicial opinions operate retroactively. That’s because ex post facto laws are thought to be fundamentally unfair, and judicial opinions normally declare what the law is—as opposed to making it. This Blackstonian view of caselaw has a few existing exceptions of great importance, involving vested rights and new judge-made rules of criminal procedure. See, e.g., Linkletter v. ...

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LawProse Lesson #256: Strategies with Names.

Strategies with Names.

Is it true that in a brief, you should use your client’s name for personalization and call your opponent by a legal label (e.g. “defendant”) for depersonalization?

No—almost never. This “advice” is almost invariably unsound. Would it be better to call Cruella De Ville “Antagonist”? No: she’s memorably Cruella. Bad facts about a party opponent will stick to a name.

If you want to write vividly, with impact, the characters in your stories need names—not generic labels that make your ...

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LawProse Lesson #255: Lay vs. lie.

Admittedly, the traditional conjugations are more blurred than ever. Mastering them has proved difficult for people. Nevertheless, here goes.

Lay is a transitive verb—that is, it demands a direct object {lay your pencils down}. It is inflected laylaidlaid {I laid the book there yesterday} {these rumors have been laid to rest}. (The children’s prayer Now I lay me down to sleep is a good mnemonic device for the transitive lay.)

Lie is an intransitive verb—that is, it never takes a direct object ...

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LawProse Lesson #254: The four necessities of brief-writing.

Persuasion is a complicated product of successful conscious and unconscious effects. As a brief-writer, your goal is to persuade the judge to rule in your client’s favor. Generally, to achieve this, you must do four things:
1. Get the judge’s attention.
Don’t let your brief be one of those dense, befuddling aggregates of facts, law, names, and procedural details. You know, like 99% of the briefs that cross a judge’s desk. Let the judge know the determinative law and facts on the ...
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LawProse Lesson #253: Commonly mispronounced words.

If lawyers could remember to avoid just five common mispronunciations, what would they be? These are the words:

applicable

comparable

often

realtor

substantive

Say them aloud. Then see whether you used the preferable (PREF-uh-ruh-buhl) pronunciations:

applicable (accent on the first syllable, not the second)

comparable (same)

often (silent t)

realtor (two syllables, not three)

substantive (three syllables [/SUB-stuhn-tiv/], not four, and accent on the first syllable)

As a speaker, you may (or may not) gain points for impeccable pronunciation—because many people don’t care. But you’re sure to lose points with listeners who ...

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LawProse Lesson #252: What’s new in “The Winning Brief”?

What’s new in The Winning Brief?

Three things. First, it’s being offered as a 10-part webinar series for the first time this summer. If you care about persuasive writing, you won’t want to miss it. (Sign up here.) Second, the third edition has all the substance from the first two editions, plus nine entirely new sections (including “understanding your readers,” “flaying your opponents’ arguments without inflammatory rhetoric,” and “making cogent arguments about statutory and contractual provisions”).

If your copy has ...

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LawProse Lesson #251: Considerations in legal editing.

Three important considerations in legal editing.

It’s best to use single-minded focus when editing the different parts of documents. Certain editing approaches may apply to particular sections of a document. Here are three practical examples:

  1. Revisit the issue presented. In your issue statement, you want to be sure that you don’t state as a fact any legal or factual conclusion that the court or fact-finder will have to decide in resolving the issue. Once you have completed your memo or brief, reconsider ...
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