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Adventures in legal writing

Driving into work last week, I was listening to one of my favorite new podcasts, Reply All, which is a show full of oddball stories about the Internet. The subject of last week’s episode was a software engineer named Bryan Henderson who has made it his quest to rid Wikipedia of one grammatical mistake: the incorrect use of the phrase “comprised of” in articles.

Henderson has made tens of thousands of edits on Wikipedia mainly to correct something that he believes is rooted in confusion between the verbs “to comprise” and “to compose.” For example, you shouldn’t say that Maryland is “comprised of” two appellate courts, according to Henderson; you should say it is “composed of” two appellate courts. If you want to learn more about this, Henderson wrote a 6,000 word essay (6,000 words!) about it.

After hearing his story, I immediately had two thoughts:

(1) Wow. This guy is serious about grammar!

(2) I definitely have used the phrase “comprised of” incorrectly in my writing.

It got me thinking about all that I had learned in the areas of grammar, style and even typography since entering the legal profession. Before law school, I enjoyed writing, but I was very rough around the edges. With tons of practice, and lessons learned from plenty of my own mistakes, however, I believe I have grown into a proficient writer.

In honor of Bryan Henderson, here are five rules I used to break in my writing:

1. Quotation marks inside or outside of other punctuation marks – Before law school, I never put quotation marks outside of other punctuation marks. Then, after turning in my first writing assignment, my legal writing professor went to the chalkboard and blasted the entire class (or maybe just me) for not knowing the rule about quotation marks. I never made the mistake again.

For the rule on quotation marks, I’ll quote Bryan Garner* from The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style: “periods and commas go inside; semicolons and colons go outside; and question marks and exclamation marks go inside only if they are part of the quoted matter.” I put this as No 1. because I see this mistake on a daily basis.

2. One space after periods – For the full story, check out this Slate article regarding a mistake that most people are making every day: typing two spaces after a period. As the article explains, back in the Stone Age when we all used typewriters, two spaces after a period was common because most typewriters used monospaced type, meaning that each letter used the same amount of horizontal space. But with PCs and word-processing software, nearly every font employs proportional typesetting, meaning skinny letters (e.g., “I”) get less horizontal space than big letters (e.g., “W”).

If you’re like me, the old two spaces rule was ingrained into your head to the point that your thumb now involuntarily taps the space bar twice after each sentence. So what I do now is wait until I am done writing and press CTRL+F to open up the “Find and Replace” window in Microsoft Word. There, I ask Word to find all instances of two consecutive spaces in the document and to replace them each with one space. Think this one-space rule is silly? Try using my CTRL+F method after you’ve written a perfect 35-and-a-half page brief for the Court of Special Appeals. You’ll be a convert like me.

3. “Let’s eat Grandma” v. “Let’s eat, Grandma” – This mistake most often comes up in correspondence. The basic rule is that, when directly addressing a person, a writer should separate the person’s name using a comma (e.g., “Good morning, Your Honor.”). In all honesty, I don’t think this rule is a huge deal (especially with informal communication through text and social media) but it is something I try to follow as much as possible.

4. “However” and commas and semi-colons – A very common mistake occurs when writers use conjunctive adverbs like “however,” “furthermore,” and “therefore” to combine two sentences into one. The mistake is made when the writer places a comma before the conjunctive adverb instead of a semi-colon.

Here is an example of where a comma before the conjunctive adverb is incorrect: “The plaintiff established that the defendant breached his duty, however, there was no evidence that the plaintiff incurred any damages.” In this example, there should be a semi-colon before “however.” To make things even more complicated, there are times when a comma is correct before the conjunctive adverb, like when the word is not combining two sentences (e.g., “The jury, however, found in favor of the defendant.”).

5. Pleaded v. Pled – This is one I am sure I don’t follow on a regular basis, but I think it is worth mentioning. During law school, I served as the editor of my journal. We would occasionally receive phone calls or emails about our articles, but one sticks out in particular. A Maryland lawyer had received our latest volume and was calling to admonish us for using the word “pled” in an article about a recent appellate opinion. The caller pointed out that we should have used the word “pleaded” because that was the proper past tense of plead. He also provided me with a citation to Garner’s Red Book. Sure enough, he was right. Although “pled” is acceptable in American legal usage, according to Garner, “pleaded” is the better choice. (In our defense, the author of the opinion on which the article was based also used the word “pled.”)

This post is composed of (thanks, Bryan Henderson!) just some examples of rules I used to break before jumping into the legal profession, but they are ones that I continue to see broken by others on a regular basis. I have since picked up The Red Book and regularly reference it to make sure I am following the rules. (I also love Google, where typing a phrase, word or question will lead me to countless websites dedicated to grammar and style.)

What are your favorite grammar rules? Hopefully I’m not breaking any of them! (If I am, let me know in the comments or on Twitter. I am always trying to get better!)

*For you Bryan Garner fans out there, he will be teaching a legal writing CLE in Washington, D.C. on April 13.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the corrections…