LawProse Lesson #268: The two-word Latinism making a solid abbreviation.

Can you think of a common two-word Latin phrase that gets solidified in its abbreviated form? You might cite per centum (per 100) vs. percent—and that’s a fair answer. But perhaps the strangest is et cetera, which becomes etc. (= and other things). The old-fashioned form of it, predominant from 1700 to 1850, is &c. (using an ampersand), which originated as a ligature of et. Today it’s almost invariably etc.

Five other things about etc.

First, it’s silly to think the term ...

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LawProse Lesson #267: Law of the case.

The phrase law of the case is often misunderstood. Properly, it denotes a common-law doctrine that applies most often to cases that have been appealed. When an appellate court makes a final decision in a case, that decision is binding in a later appeal after remand. The decision becomes the law of that case.

For example, a litigant may appeal two of a trial court’s final decisions: to exclude a piece of evidence and to give the jury an improper instruction. ...

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LawProse Lesson #266: The plague of block quotations

What are the primary hallmarks of lazy, mediocre (or worse) legal writers? Pages filled with citations and block quotations. Today we’ll focus just on the latter. The Bluebook says that any quotation of more than 50 words must be set off in a block. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that a quotation of 100 words or more (at least six to eight lines of text) should be set off. This standard serves the purpose of not having readers feel ...

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LawProse Lesson #265: Intelligibility vs. Credibility.

People often ask why it matters what precise word you use (militate vs. mitigate, or masterly vs. masterful) as long as readers or listeners understand what you mean. If there’s no real confusion, they say, why should we get persnickety about words?

This view is premised on the pragmatic idea that language is all about communication, and that if the basic message gets through, then the mission has been accomplished. But it fails to account for all that you communicate every ...

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LawProse Lesson #264: The chronology of relevant events.

What’s the most important step in writing a statement of facts? It’s the creation of a chronology of relevant events—a document that lists, day by day and time by time, every important occurrence bearing on the interactions between parties.

Lawyers often ask clients to prepare such a chronology as a starting point. Although the quality varies according to the client’s skill and knowledge, this timeline can be an excellent exercise for the client to understand precisely what has happened.

It helps you, ...

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LawProse Lesson #263: The “such that” lesson.

A few years ago, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote to complain about the use of such that in place of so that: “Annihilate it!” he told me. “It’s pervasive among lawyers today.”

It is an odd usage that I recall having first encountered in high-school geometry {Let a distance CB be taken on the conjugate axis, such that the square of CB will bear to the square of CA, the same ratio . . .}. The extended use, perhaps deriving from this geometric ...

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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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