LawProse Lesson # 93: The toughest spelling test you’ll encounter.

What are the most commonly misspelled legal terms? Spelling raises troublesome issues. It’s no more important, really, than dribbling is to basketball, short putts to golf, or personal hygiene to social relations. If you think they’re/there/their is a distinction you needn’t concern yourself with — perhaps because it’s below your pay grade — you’re (not …

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LawProse Lesson # 92

What’s the most common syntactical error that lawyers make? ANSWER: It has to do with appositives. Lawyers can’t seem to handle them. They cause problems in both phrasing and punctuation. So what’s an appositive? Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed. 2009) defines it as a word or phrase that points to the same person or …

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LawProse Lesson # 91

In The Winning Brief, why does Bryan Garner cite so many books on writing to support his 100 brief-writing tips? ANSWER: The whole purpose of the book is to counteract the sylistically wayward practices of inept brief-writers, from ill-constructed sentences to unreadable issue statements. As he is quick to point out when teaching his seminar …

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LawProse Lesson # 90

Is it correct to refer to an attorney general or solicitor general as “General So-and-So”? ANSWER: Not really. The trend has been to address attorneys general and solicitors general as if they were military officers, as in “General Starr, when will the report be available to the public?” Despite its prevalence, this is strictly speaking …

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LawProse Lesson # 89

When should all-caps text be used? ANSWER: When you need to emphasize particularly important information in text, all-caps will do the job, but you should never use all-caps for more than just a few words, as in a title: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, for example, on a billboard. Less defensible is the quasi-shouting …

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LawProse Lesson # 88

What are the rules on initial capitals? ANSWER: Most of the first letters of words in the titles of books, articles, songs, etc. are capitalized. The exceptions are articles or prepositions of four or fewer letters (unless they begin the title). So The Great Escape and Much Ado About Nothing, but Hope Is the Thing with …

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LawProse Lesson #87

What are the rules on indenting? ANSWER: The first rule of indenting is to change your word-processor’s default tab setting. Half-inch tabs are a sure sign of a dysfunctional layout. They jump out at you as soon as you pick up a document and see “A.” half an inch from the left margin, followed by …

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LawProse Lesson #86

What’s wrong with underlining in briefs, contracts, and other legal documents? ANSWER: Underlining is a holdover from the era of typewriters. It’s crude and unsightly. Why else would you recoil from a published book that contained underlining? Admit it: you would. Any publisher that typeset a book with underlining would seem like a fly-by-night operation. …

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LawProse Lesson #85

Why is The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, at once so revered and so reviled? Some 52 years on, America’s favorite “little book” on style has become a source of controversy. It’s a primer–an excellent but extremely elementary book. Part of the negative attention it gets is based on the way some people …

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LawProse Lesson #84

What’s the LawProse Effective Writing Index? It’s a scale to gauge the ten most important attributes of analytical and persuasive writing. The Index — forgive us, but we use the acronym LEWI (pronounced “louie”) — measures clarity, readability, efficiency, flow, tone, and mechanics. When different lawyer-editors at LawProse independently measured various pieces of writing, the …

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LawProse Lesson #83

What is the most frequent error involving the semicolon? ANSWER: Placing it after a salutation in a letter, as in “Dear Lon Fuller; . . . .” That is worse than semiliterate: it is a barbarism. Only two punctuation marks are allowable after a salutation: the colon (in formal business letters) and the comma (in …

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LawProse Lessons #81 & #82

Lesson # 81 Does the new Scalia-Garner treatise take a position on the serial comma — that is, the one preceding “and” in the phrase “a, b, and c”? ANSWER: Yes, in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner explain the Punctuation Canon. In the course of that section, they …

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LawProse Lessons #79 & #80

Lesson # 79 Why does Bryan Garner recommend deleting shall from all legal instruments? ANSWER: Several reasons: (1) It is the most frequently litigated word in the English language. (2) Not 1 lawyer in 100 uses it consistently in mandatory senses. (3) In most contracts, it bears three or four meanings — thereby violating the …

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LawProse Lessons #77 & #78

Lesson # 77 What’s the easiest way to resolve a debate about any punctuation issue? ANSWER: Look at two authoritative sources: The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style ch. 1 (2d ed. 2006) (with 50 pages devoted to punctuation) and The Chicago Manual of Style ch. 6 (16th ed. 2011) (with 43 pages devoted to …

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LawProse Lessons #75 & #76

Lesson # 75 What’s the most eye-opening lesson that lawyers learn at LawProse seminars? ANSWER: There are many eye-openers, but the biggest is probably that writing style matters much more than most legal writers suspect. It is the wand that turns good ideas into gold. And just as you know the quality of a musician …

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LawProse Lessons #73 & #74

Lesson # 73 What is the biggest mistake that lawyers make in the writing process? ANSWER: Starting to write before they’ve figured out precisely what the message is. As a result, the writing tends to be long-winded, meandering, repetitious, and unfocused. For tips on adopting a sensible method for writing, see these sources: Garner on …

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LawProse Lessons #71 & #72

Lesson # 71 What is the most astonishing usage error committed by a majority of lawyers?ANSWER: Misunderstanding that the phrase just deserts (/di-ZURTS/) is so spelled — as opposed to the erroneous *just desserts. This word desert (pronounced, we reiterate, /di-ZURT/) is the noun corresponding to deserve. The Supreme Court of the United States has used the …

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LawProse Lessons #67 & #68

LawProse Lesson #67 What’s the most frequent and serious mistake in brief-writing and motion-writing? Answer: Failing to frame the deep issues on page 1 — so that anyone, anyone, will understand the essential legal problems to be solved. It should be a dispassionate but persuasive statement of the issues. For instruction on precisely how to …

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LawProse Lessons #69 & #70

LawProse Lesson #69 How should point headings be formatted?ANSWER: Please attend to this. Ideally, they’re complete sentences that are single-spaced, boldfaced, and capitalized only according to normal rules of capitalization — that is, neither all-caps nor initial caps. Even if court rules require headings to be double-spaced, all the other rules nevertheless apply. All-caps headings betoken …

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