LawProse Lesson #271: Ban underlining in your legal documents.

Lawyers have spent decades trying to achieve emphasis in legal documents by underlining. It’s well past time to stop. Underlining is an unsightly relic from the typewriter era, when italics weren’t usually available. With today’s word processors, there’s no reason to use it—at least not 99% of the time.

If you’ve read documents with underlined text, you know the problem. Underlining impairs legibility: it obscures some letters and punctuation (esp. the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, y, and the comma ...

Continue Reading →
0

LawProse Lesson #270: A refresher on appositives.

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that further describes or identifies another noun or noun phrase that immediately precedes it. Take this sentence: “Travis Barnhill, the company’s CEO, spoke to the media about the merger.” The phrase the company’s CEO is an appositive of the proper noun Travis Barnhill. Or this: “The dog with the broken leg, Wookie, belonged to the office manager.” Wookie further identifies, by name, the dog with the broken leg.

There are two types of ...

Continue Reading →
0

LawProse Lesson #269: Average sentence length.

Average sentence length.

What’s recommended? An average sentence length of 20 words. That doesn’t mean that every sentence needs to be 20 words long. You want some longer sentences (well put together, naturally) and some shorter ones (perhaps two or three words). But your average ought to be around 20. John Trimble, the renowned University of Texas English professor, advises: “As a rule of thumb, whenever you’ve written three longish sentences in a row, make your fourth a short one. And ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0

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. ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0

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, ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0

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, ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0

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 ...

Continue Reading →
0
Page 1 of 17 12345...»