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Exacting Legal Writers Sweat the Small Stuff

Man-sweatingLast week at Lawyerist, readers were treated to two competing views about the importance of sweating the small stuff in legal writing.

In Two Spaces After a Period? Who Cares?, Sybil Dunlop said that she treats certain punctuation and grammar rules as “guidelines,” which she jettisons if they conflict with a superior’s whims, or if they don’t mesh with her personal style.

In Don’t Miss These Marks in Your Legal Writing, I argued that lawyers who have a loose attitude towards following generally accepted punctuation and grammar rules risk having readers question their professional competence and rigor.

Am I being too fussy when I say that lawyers — as professional writers — should strive to follow generally accepted punctuation and grammar rules? Not at all.

“Reject Rules to Good Effect”? Which Ones?

Ms. Dunlop cites the “rule” of inserting one space after a sentence-ending period as an example of a punctuation and grammar rule that lawyers can disregard without any adverse effect. But the one-space rule isn’t a rule of punctuation or grammar. As Matthew Butterick says in Typography for Lawyers, placing one space after a sentence-ending period is the style preference of professional typographers and publishers.

That nicety aside, the bigger problem with quibbling with a typographical or style preference like placing one space after a sentence-ending period is that it’s a classic straw man — a logical fallacy advocates disingenuously trot out to avoid addressing the merits of the contrary argument.

Let’s assume that placing one or two spaces after a sentence-ending period is discretionary. What other punctuation or grammar rules can lawyers discard to placate a superior’s whims or because they just don’t work in a particular sentence? Is it sometimes acceptable to omit the ’s when forming the possessive case of singular nouns ending in s? What about using dangling modifiers or writing run-on sentences? No serious writer would suggest that these punctuation and grammar rules are discretionary.

Without concrete examples of allegedly expendable punctuation and grammar rules to test, people like me who believe that lawyers disregard generally accepted punctuation and grammar rules at their peril are left to tilt at windmills.

Make Superiors Look Good By Not Perpetuating Their Blunders

I concede that it’s difficult for younger lawyers to point out a superior’s punctuation and grammar blunders. But that doesn’t change the fact that the superior is blundering.

If Richard Wydick is correct that lawyers abdicate their professional duty when they disregard punctuation and grammar rules, aren’t younger lawyers obligated to point out their superiors’ errors, especially if their clients are disserved by perpetuating them? Don’t firms pay top dollar for associates to think critically about and resolve the pedantic issues so that partners can focus on the big picture?

If it’s anything, the job of young attorneys is to make their superiors look good, not foolish. But by aiding and abetting superiors’ punctuation and grammar blunders, everyone involved is made a fool.

Clients Expect Better Than An Ad Hoc Approach

It’s one thing to be blissfully ignorant about something (or, as Bryan Garner calls it, “unconsciously incompetent”). It’s another thing to know how to do something right (Garner calls it “unconsciously competent”), but take the easy way out and intentionally do something wrong.

As I pointed out in my column, lawyers who take an ad hoc approach to punctuation and grammar risk having readers — judges, opposing counsel, and sophisticated clients — question their professional competence and rigor in other areas of lawyering. Garner’s admonition is worth repeating here:

Where punctuation is merely wrong, and the meaning unaffected, the discriminating reader draws other types of inferences—usually unfavorable ones—about the writer. Any writer wants to avoid these, for they commonly extend beyond one’s grammatical knowledge to one’s level of education and carefulness in general. Well-crafted writing lends credibility to what is being said . . . We cannot divorce style from substance.

(adapted from Litigation (Summer 1989)).

If you wish, go ahead and treat generally accepted punctuation and grammar rules as guidelines. But know that there are plenty of unemployed lawyers who are waiting for you to make a case-determinative mistake when you follow your own rules, and who will be more than happy to do the job right if given the opportunity.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/speshulted/405081702/)

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