LawProse Lesson #272: Ending your sentences with punch.
Last week, we addressed the legal writer’s bad habit of emphasizing words by using unsightly and outdated underlining. The better substitute for highlighting specific words or short phrases is italics. Yet there’s a syntactic practice that can be even more effective and forceful: ending your sentences emphatically. Skilled writers know that the most emphatic position in a sentence is not at the beginning—but at the end. A well-written sentence is a crescendo, its final word or phrase being the climax. With practice, this technique becomes easier to recognize and master, but here are some general tips: (1) don’t end a sentence with a date, rule number, or citation unless it is a critical fact; (2) don’t end with a client’s name unless it comes as a surprise; and (3) don’t end with a qualifying phrase such as in many circumstances, at the time, generally speaking, etc. To test a sentence’s forcefulness, read it aloud, exaggerating the last word. If it fizzles or trails off, try recasting the sentence. Consider the information you’re conveying—and what deserves the greatest emphasis. Pick out the most important point and build up to it. Let’s look at three rewrites of the same sentence: Ex. 1: Alaina Francis died in Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Ex. 2: Alaina Francis died two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Ex. 3: Two weeks ago, while visiting Pittsburgh, Alaina Francis died. The first version emphasizes the time of death, the second emphasizes the place of death, while the third emphasizes the death itself—most likely the writer’s point. Of course, if the context instead calls for focus on the death’s time or place, the first or second example would be the stronger choice. Remember, shrewd phrasing beats formatting gimmicks every time. To give your sentences an extra kick, punch up the ending. Further reading: The Winning Brief 296–306 (3d ed. 2014) (with 11 examples). Garner’s Modern English Usage 815–16 (4th ed. 2016). Legal Writing in Plain English 41–43 (2d ed. 2013). Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 122 (2008).