Legal Writing

Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that only 29% of our readers lie back and think of England when dealing with punctuation and quotation marks. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

This week, we turn to a hotly-debated issue among legal professionals: the use of the Bluebook. At least one federal judge hates it, joining hundreds upon thousands of law students to date.

Should we consider putting the Bluebook on the backburner in our legal writing?

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In last week’s Grammer Pole, 60 percent of you supported forming the singular possessive of a noun ending in “s” by adding an apostrophe followed by an additional “s” — e.g., “Kansas’s statute” rather than “Kansas’ statute.” In this debate, you sided with Justice Souter over Justice Thomas (based on their dueling approaches in Kansas v. Marsh).

Today we call upon you to choose between nationalities instead of Supreme Court justices. When it comes to the placement of punctuation marks in relation to quotation marks, do you favor the British approach or the American approach?

Let’s review the differences….

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that 52% of our readers thought it was acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, but with the caveat that it should be avoided if possible. That’s pretty wishy-washy, folks.

This week, we’re going to focus on an issue with a supreme split in authority, and you’re going to have to choose one side or the other. You’re going to pick Clarence Thomas’ side (you’ll soon see why we wrote it that way), or you’re going to pick David Souter’s side, but that’s it. Ooh, that’s a little possessive….

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In last week’s Grammer Pole, you voted to overwhelmingly approve the use of split infinitives. Fifty-three percent of Above the Law readers said that splitting infinitives is acceptable, even if it should be done sparingly. An additional forty percent said, “Yes. It’s great to liberally split infinitives!”

This suggests to me that ATL readers are a pragmatic bunch when it comes to language. You’re not hung up on hoary rules that don’t serve a practical purpose in communication.

I think I can guess, then, what you think of the injunction against ending a sentence with a preposition….

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In an event I did a few years ago at the University of Chicago with Judge Richard Posner (check out the podcast here), Judge Posner tossed out a delicious little blind item. He mentioned a federal judge in Chicago who would fire law clerks for what she viewed as a very grave offense: splitting infinitives in written work product.

But is splitting infinitives really such a crime?

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In Feeling the Kumbaya (Part I), we looked at how different the perspectives of business clients and in-house lawyers can be. Below are a few techniques that have helped me and my clients to feel the Kumbaya for each other (or at least have helped them to not think I’m only a total loser who has nothing better to do than change all of the commas in a list after a colon to semicolons).

Prioritize. I used to suspect that there was something about going in-house that made perfectly good law firm attorneys develop permanent amnesia when it came to good drafting. It was the strangest thing. Even my husband, a supposedly respectable corporate law firm attorney, after going in-house, suddenly started to let minor errors appear in his emails. My judgment of him was quick and deliberate. He would sometimes mistakenly use “there” instead of “their,” for God’s sakes! What lawyer does that?

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I’m begging for help here: If you have global responsibilities and are routinely dealing with documents created in languages that you don’t speak, how do you assess outside counsel’s skill at communicating?

As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m a realist at heart. I know in my bones that most lawyers write poorly. I learned this lesson early. When I popped open the first brief that crossed my desk as a clerk in the Ninth Circuit, I exclaimed to one of my co-clerks, “This is great!”

“What’s great?” she asked. “The brief?”

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The most recent installment of Grammer Pole of the Weak showcased the sophistication of Above the Law readers. The poll results show that most ATL readers appreciate the distinction between “that” and “which” (which they like to show off in their legal writing).

Today we tackle an issue that is less clear-cut, which will probably result in a more closely divided vote than last week’s. Here is the issue: What is the proper capitalization for the first word of an independent clause that follows a colon?

If that sounds confusing, please keep reading for clarification….

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It’s Friday, Friday, gotta talk about grammar on Friday. Welcome back to Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we discovered that 75% of our readers love to use substantive footnotes in their legal writing. Aww, Scalia would be so proud.

And speaking of Scalia, we’ve given him a little too much time in the limelight in this series. So, this week, we’re going to turn to an issue of grammar with some stylistic flair that was brought to our attention by another member of SCOTUS….

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In Grammer Pole of the Weak — yes, “Grammer” is intentionally misspelled, as are “Pole” and “Weak” — we consider questions of English grammar and usage. Last week, for example, we looked at a fun an interesting topic: the adjectival use of “fun” (which over 85 percent of you support, even if traditionalists frown upon it).

But we’d like the column’s purview to extend beyond grammar and usage. We’ll also tackle issues related to legal writing, in terms of both style and mechanics. Feel free to email us with suggested subjects for future Grammer Poles.

Today’s subject is one on which there’s a split of authority, between two co-authors of a leading legal writing book….

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