LawProse Lesson #187: More on legal editing.

LawProse Lesson #187: More on legal editing.

More on legal editing: changing be-verbs to action verbs. In last week’s lesson—an overview of the LawProse editing method—we recommended converting be-verbs into stronger verbs. Be-verbs lack the punch of action verbs. Overusing weakens your prose, diluting its impact. Although the English language has eight be-verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, be, been), it’s wise to focus on the big four: is, are, was, were. After you’ve written your rough draft, highlight every is, are, was, and were to see whether you can improve the passage by replacing them with action verbs. For example: Not this: Carlton is representing the plaintiff in this case. But this: Carlton represents the plaintiff in this case. Not this: The attorney’s fees owed by Smith are entirely dependent on how many hours are spent by the lawyers on the case. But this: The attorney’s fees Smith owes depend entirely on how many hours the lawyers spend on the case. Not this: The answer was filed by the defendant on Wednesday. But this: The defendant filed the answer on Wednesday. Not this: Any and all such cases that were on file prior to June 1, 2012, were excepted from the rule change by the saving clause. But this: By virtue of the saving clause, all cases filed before June 1, 2012, fall outside the rule change. Many writers erroneously believe that a be-verb always signals passive voice. In fact, the unfailing test for passive voice is that you must have a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in -ed). Which examples above contain no passive voice? (Read on for the answer.) The point about passive voice is that the subject of the clause doesn’t perform the action but receives it. Even if the be-verb doesn’t make the sentence technically passive, a flabby be-verb still weakens the prose. You’ll find that supplanting it with an action verb makes your writing stronger and more colorful, which enhances its persuasiveness. Answer: Which of the few “Not this” examples above contain no passive voice? The first only. In the second, are spent is passive; in the third, was filed is passive; and in the fourth, are excepted is passive. Further reading: Legal Writing in Plain English 36–39, 48–55 (2d ed. 2013). The Winning Brief 256–71 (3d ed. 2014).

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