I admit it. I am a complete nerd when it comes to grammar, usage and spelling. It’s an honest obsession. After all, both of my parents are English teachers, and I taught high school English for ten years. As you can probably remember from your own high school English class, any teacher who spent time on grammar was a complete nerd.
So what’s the point? The point is that as I have made my way in the legal world, I have noticed that not many attorneys really care about grammar. I routinely receive pleadings, motions and discovery responses that contain glaring errors.
For example, I recently received a Motion to Continue from opposing counsel that began like this:
Comes now, Plaintiff, Jim Smith, by and through his counsels, John Doe, Esquire, Jane Doe, Esquire and Doe and Doe, LLC, and submit this Motion to Continue. In support thereof, Plaintiff submits the following:
“Counsels”? That’s a verb. The grammatically correct plural of counsel in this instance is counsel. What about the lack of subject-verb agreement in the first sentence? The Plaintiff submit? This is basic stuff, made worse — in my opinion — by the proper subject-verb agreement (Plaintiff submits) in the subsequent sentence. I am a self-admitted nerd, but I find this lack of attention to detail infuriating.
Similarly, I often encounter documents from opposing counsel littered with improperly used semicolons. Full disclosure: this was one of my favorite subjects as an English teacher, so I have great affection for the semicolon. I also empathize with those who misuse it, as it is not the easiest form of punctuation to use. However, I would be remiss in a post (mild rant?) about grammar if I did not offer some guidance.
A semicolon has two proper usages. First, a semicolon is used to combine two independent clauses. Here’s an example of proper usage:
I went to the supermarket; I bought eggs.
Notice that in this usage, the semicolon actually takes the place of the conjunction. There is no semicolon needed when a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) is used to combine the independent clauses. In that case, a comma precedes the conjunction. Take a look:
I went to the supermarket, and I bought eggs.
Second, a semicolon is used to separate list items that contain commas. Here’s an example:
I have lived in Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Bethesda, Maryland.
So again, you might be wondering about the point? Well, frankly, I am not sure. It has become clear to me in the short time that I’ve practiced law that there are many attorneys who fail to observe proper grammar when writing for other attorneys and the court. I am not sure if they simply do not care about proper grammar and usage. Perhaps they do not know enough to know that their grammar is incorrect.
I personally think that the failure to learn and follow the rules of grammar is a failure to observe the most basic rules of professionalism. I think it does a disservice to our profession, our colleagues and our peers. On the other hand, maybe I’m just a nerd and am making too much of the frequent errors I see. I would, therefore, be interested to hear what others have experienced and whether they think there is a growing grammar problem as well.