Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

“[A]nyone can make such an occasional mistake, but…”

Monday, July 18th, 2011

As you may already know the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a suit by a Texas cheerleader who did not make the varsity squad, stating ““Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court.” While several sources have focused on the case it self, ABA also notes that the court’s opinion comments harshly in a footnote on the grammar and spelling in the brief filed by the cheerleader’s law firm:

“Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word ‘principals’ should have been “principles.’ The word ‘vacatur’ is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject (‘incompetence’) and a plural verb (‘are’).”

In particular, Smith criticized this sentence in the plaintiff’s opening brief: “Because a magistrate is not an Article III judge, his incompetence in applying general principals [sic] of law are [sic] extraordinary.”

These are the type of errors I see daily in student papers and all too often in documents prepared for submission to a court. As noted previously, writing right is important and there are consequences to sloppiness. (See the category of that name on this blog.)

There are, of course, also issues here regarding the decision of the lawyer to take this case not only to trial, but to appeal. While those decisions are ultimately the attorney’s, good lawyers will use paralegals as sounding boards during the decision process. Paralegals should speak up when given the opportunity (and often even when they are not), to provide some perspective in cases such as this. After all, it is likely the paralegal who will be expected to handle the client!

Writing Wrong

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

My last post related to using or disregarding grammar rules in order to communicate clearly. This evening I ran across these headlines for the same story. While headlines are not like real writing, a certain amount of clarity (which means thinking about what you are writing) is still required. Which of these three do you think most accurately represents the story:

Mother of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, found dead and weighing just 15 pounds, arrested for assault. (Wow, the child’s mother weighed 15 pound, was found dead, and was stillcharged with assault!) New York Daily News.

Mother of underweight child found dead charged with assault (I’m actually surprised that the New York Post is a bit better than the New York Daily News.) New York Post.

Brooklyn Mother Charged In Connection With Underweight Daughter’s Death NY1

A sad story no matter how you look at it, but it does at least deserve intelligible writing.

When to boldly split an infinitive

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

It is difficult to exactly determine when to deftly split an infinitive and when not to do so. A post on reports on a lawyer and public relations consultant who advises,

“Blindly following grammar rules can be a mistake for legal writers..That means it is permissible to boldly split your infinitives, according to a Recorder article by AT&T lawyer John di Bene and public relations consultant Elizabeth Lampert.

“Lawyers will write the worst sentences in order to keep infinitives together, ruin the flow of their arguments and lose their readers in the process,” they write. “Remember, you are not writing for a grade, you’re writing to make a point. While it is important to know a rule, it is just as important to know when you should break it.”

They also advise against convoluted language, jargon and a patronizing tone.

This should not, however, be taken by any one that they can simply ignore the rules of grammar as a professional paralegal.

First, there is significant disagreement as to whether splitting infinitives is grammatically incorrect. So splitting an infinitive may not be a rule contravention at all. More important, though, is to take heed of the context: it is OK to bend the rules of grammar in order to avoid ruining the flow of an argument, or confusing or losing a reader. Most rules of grammar are intended to prevent these very same problem. Writing clearly, concisely, and persuasively is the goal. Most rules of grammar support that goal in most instances. They should be followed unless they clearly run counter to that goal.

Writing right remains an essential paralegal skill. Sloppy writing has its consequences some of which are illustrated in the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category. The most likely consequence is that your reader will not understand you. A brief is not likely to persuade a judge if the judge cannot understand what is being said. It certainly will not persuade a judge if the judge decides not to finish reading it.

I join with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel of Minnesota in strong agreement with the advice to avoid jargon.

Writing Right

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

The KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals LinkedIn discussion forum includes a post by Kathy DiLorenzo,  Vice President, Business Development at, entitled “Why it’s Important to Write Right in the Legal Profession” with a link to an article “Why it’s Important to Write Right in the Legal Profession – And 5 Common Writing Pitfalls to Avoid” by Brenda Bernstein.

Several posts here discuss how important it is for a professional paralegal to write correctly – using proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like. There is an category cataloguing the “Consequences of Sloppiness.” However, I do not give instruction on how to write correctly in this blog. Instead I have counted on Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips Check out both the website and the podcasts. Both have been quite helpful to those of my students who spend even a small amount of time with either of them.

This is my first experience with Barbara’s advice, but in this article she does address some of the most common problems I experience when reading student work and legal documents produced be some very good law offices:

Past or Present – use of the wrong verb tense
Example or Complete List – use of “i.e.” and “e.g.”
Law or Liberty – confusing statute with statue
Proper Punctuation: Periods and Commas Inside Quotation Marks
Proper Punctuation: Apostrophes

Barbara presents this addition to the Consequences of Sloppiness:

In a famous case in England, a traffic ticket was thrown out because it was issued for illegal “stoping” instead of “stopping”; the alleged perpetrator had conducted no mining activities (“stoping” is a mining term) and so was found not guilty. I bet that police officer never issued another “stoping” ticket.

Barbara also offers to help:

There are multiple ways to make writing errors in legal documents, and I have only covered a few. My most important advice is to proofread and proofread again! Get a second pair of eyes to check your work. If you have grammar questions you want answered, I will answer them to the best of my ability in the comments section of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you…

I suggest we all take her up on her offer. I know I will.

Professionalism and Dangling Modifers

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Today’s New York Times online edition contains an article entitled, “Loose Connections,” billed as Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. In essences, it is a self-assessment by the Times. Here’s an example of what they found:

 Sometimes ambiguous antecedents and dangling modifiers are merely distracting (or mildly comical); sometimes they are potentially misleading. A couple of recent cases where we didn’t really say what we meant:

  [Online summary] Maine to Consider Warnings on Cellphones

 Under a state bill, cellphone buyers would be warned that they may cause brain cancer, despite conflicting evidence.

 All right, I know what we meant. But the pronoun problem was distracting (it was fixed later). The only plural noun for “they” to refer back to is “buyers”; “cellphone” is used as a modifier and could not properly be the antecedent.

The point for professionalism here is not necessarily the grammar correction. Having lived most of my life in Maine I read this article and noted the problem when it first ran – it was distracting, but hardly disruptive to the point of the article. Not nearly enough to qualify for this blog’s Consequences of Sloppiness category. Although the importance of using correct grammar and punctuation has been the discussed here, it is the act of self-assessment itself that I think is most important.

Self-assessment is as simple as proof-reading what we write and as complex as doing our own year-end evaluation before the office annual evaluation. (I advocate quarterly or more frequent meeting with your supervisor for evaluation purposes and self-assessment.) It also includes willingness to recognize legitimate criticism from the outside and using that criticism as a springboard for improvement. A incident recounted by Melissa H. at Paralegalese comes to mind. It is worth re-reading by clicking here together with a follow-up here.

Finally, one key to both professionalism and a successful career is taking charge of yourself. You cannot set career goals and make a plan for achieving them without indepth, sincere, and objective self-assessment. So, kudos and thanks to the New York Times and Melissa H. for their examples!

Why don’t lawyers use punctuation?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

One recent viewer arrived at this blog through the search query, “Why don’t lawyers use punctuation?”  Of course, the searcher did not find the answer her, although he or she likely found several posts noting that even judges have had enough of legalese, poor grammar and punctuation, and poor writing in general, and posts regarding my own quest for a reduction in the use of legalese, Latin phrases, and other impediments to clear communication with clients. (Lawyers also use incredibly long sentences like the one preceding this parenthetical, a sentence like this one that should be broken down into two or more much simpler sentences.) I post about these things here because in most law offices it is the paralegal who is charged with client communication.

Following the searcher’s query, I did locate an ABC Radio National – The Law Reportinterview with Judith Bennett, Plain Language Consultant at Melbourne’s Freehill, Hollingdale and Page that sheds some light on why lawyers starting writing the way we write which you can read here. It even attempts to give some answer to the more important question of why we, as a group, still write that way. Finally, Bennett joins in the call for the use of plain language – not surprising given that she is a plain language consultant. The incredible thing is that a law firm needs a professional consultant in order to write plain language!

As I’ve stated before the professional paralegal excels at conveying legal concepts using plain language rather than by perpetuating legalese. A message I’ll be repeating here and in all three of my courses this spring – Bankruptcy, Business Organizations, and Contracts. (That noise you just heard was the collective groaning of my students.)

Read herein below about superfluous words and Too Much Capitalization

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 reports on a judge who has ordered lawyers stop using capitalization with abandon:

A federal bankruptcy judge is fed up with lawyers who use superfluous words and too much capitalization, and he has directed them to stop it.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel of Minnesota took a stand against legalese in new guidelines (PDF) for lawyers preparing proposed orders in his court, Legal Blog Watch reports, citing a story by Lawyerist.

Kressel says lawyers should eliminate superfluous words such as “hereby,” “herein” and “heretofore entered in this case.” The phrases “serve no purpose other than to make the document sound more legal, which is exactly the opposite of the goal that I am trying to accomplish,” he writes. “Compare the meaning of ‘Now, therefore, it may be and is hereby ordered that’ with ‘It is ordered.’ ”

Kressel also observes that “lawyers love to capitalize words. Pleadings, including proposed orders, are commonly full of words that are capitalized, not quite randomly, but certainly with great abandon. Please limit the use of capitalization to proper names. For example, do not capitalize court, motion, movant, debtor, trustee, order, affidavit, stipulation, mortgage, lease or any of the other numerous words that are commonly capitalized.”

This doesn’t fit in the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category as it is both (1) a preventative action rather than an imposition of consequences in a reaction to sloppy work and (2) addressing an area of document prepartion that does not involve sloppiness. However, the judge go on to admonish lawyers regarding proper use of the English language:

Kressel also says lawyers need to keep their plurals and possessives “straight and consistent,” need to watch verb tense, and need to use the possessive “its” and the contraction “it’s” correctly.

Don’t use “and/or,” he counsels. But do use articles such as “the,” “a,” and “an” as appropriate. Refer to “the debtor,” rather than “debtor,” for example.

The first is a simple matter of proofreading (assuming one knows the correct rules.) While I have often made such mistakes here on this blog, none of the posts are intended to be filed in court!

There are several points to be made here. First, a professional legal document is not a document filled with legal jargon and archaic language. Indeed, as Kressel suggests, the opposite is likely the case. Second, although this order is addressed to attorneys, it is likely paralegals will be charged with compliance. Third, it is necessary to know and practice proper use of the English language, a matter of reality my students, many paralegals and more than a few attorneys seem determined to deny.

The last point is well made in a recent guest post on The Paralegal Mentor blog by Lori Robinett, President of the Mid-Missouri Paralegal Association entitled, “Use of the English Language..” You should read the entire post, but here’s the sound bite:

Preciseness and accuracy are an absolute necessity. And the way you use language is a reflection on you and your employer. Take the time to learn the English language, pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Finally, the ABAJournal.comstory end with Kressel saying,“Write the way you would speak.” Unforunately, based on listening to many, many hours of listening to attorneys arguing motions and in other oral arguments, it seems he may regret the statement if attorneys take him literally!