People who take the English language seriously enough to make it their business—writers, editors, writing teachers, language teachers, translators, and so on—can have strong opinions about English grammar and usage. As one writer recently observed in the New York Times, “If you write for a living, it’s impossible not to adore certain words, [sic] and revile others.” I of course have my own pet peeves about English grammar and usage (such as including commas when you don’t need them, as that quotation from the New York Times does).
How many pet peeves about English do I have? This post covers ten, but the number could go higher. As I promised in this blog’s first round-up post on Legal English, I’m working on an entire post to explain why I used a hyphen for round-up when many people today would use roundup. That post will discuss problems I see with trends in using hyphens, at least in written American English. This current post also does not address the trendy mis-use of graduate as a transitive verb, yet another point of style that irks me. In other words, this post certainly does not exhaust my peeves and preferences on English grammar and usage.
But the ten points of English grammar and style discussed in this post do make a good start of pointing you toward firmer, less-confusing prose when you write on legal topics in English. Watch for the ten usages I list here, use the alternative principles or examples I offer, and you’ll be well on your way to writing legal documents in English with the clarity that your international readers need.
In the order in which I jotted them down, here are ten common points of English usage that you should avoid—and what you should do instead—when you write on legal topics in English:
1. Verbiage as a neutral term
Until recently, verbiage was a slur, a disparaging synonym for fat, fluff, or filler in reference to a group of words. Today, through what seems to be functionally illiterate laziness, the term is enjoying a neutral usage, as when a web developer last year referred to the words on the main pages on this site as verbiage. I was surprised that he would insult my work so openly—until I realized that he was using verbiage only as a harmless synonym for neutral words such as words or copy (i.e., the words that copywriters write). Observing such a difference in meanings—keeping the negative negative and the neutral neutral—will help you avoid such misunderstandings altogether.
2. The “floating only”
Work to keep only closest to what it really modifies. Miscommunications happen when you let only float to parts of a sentence in ways that don’t express your intended meaning.
The title of an old, popular American song, “I only have eyes for you,” helps to show why. The songwriter probably meant to assure his beloved that he looks at no one but her because she inspires such deep feelings in him. To express that meaning, though, he needed to say, “I have eyes for only you.” By placing only before have, the songwriter actually said that he finds his beloved attractive (what his eyes can perceive), but that’s the extent of his interest in her. One can only hope that the beloved did not read the songwriter’s words with the precision of a grammarian or an attorney.
To see the “floating only” in action, read this short post on “a little lesson about ‘only’.” Note the list of six versions of the same sentence, with only appearing in a different place in each sentence. Note especially how the meaning changes, from one sentence to the next, based solely on what only actually modifies in each sentence. The lesson for you is this: When you use only in your written Legal English, place the word in the sentence so that your sentence says what you mean to say.
3. Omitted that for indirect statements
It’s old-fashioned, and it slows the pace of an English sentence. But the use of that to introduce an indirect statement is never wrong, and sometimes it’s essential for clear expression. It also adds a certain “classical restraint” to a sentence that fits the relatively formal tone you’ll need in so much of your professional writing in English as an ESL attorney.
This age’s preference to speed up the English sentence—to make all English prose conform to a breezy, conversational, journalistic model—often overlooks these benefits of that when introducing indirect statements. And the clarity of English prose suffers in the process.
Consider: The law professor observed contemporary law students will face a difficult job market when they graduate from law school. (N.B. That sentence does not say “graduate law school.”) The writer of the sentence intends to report a statement that a certain law professor made about “contemporary law students.” But because students can be a direct object of the verb observed, the reader stumbles, if only for a split-second, before she realizes that the sentence contains an indirect statement. Simply adding that to the sentence (“The law professor observed that contemporary law students . . .”) would help the reader assimilate the writer’s intended meaning as soon as possible.
You should see a paradox here: This particular method of “speeding up English prose” often has the opposite effect of slowing down English prose by making readers work harder to understand the use of a fairly simple, straightforward point of grammar (indirect statements). Speeding up the pace of writing can be a good thing. But if the method of achieving that goal often actually defeats the goal, then you should avoid using that method.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the noun or pronoun following a verb introducing an indirect statement can be a direct object of that verb, you probably should use that to introduce the indirect statement. If the subject of an indirect statement cannot be a direct object, it’s safe to omit the that, as in this example: He knows I love Rome. The I in that sentence cannot be a direct object, which means that you can safely omit that. Of course, you also could play it safe, as modern Italian does, and simply use that (in Italian, che) every time your writing includes an indirect statement.
4. Omitted serial comma
Like the that that introduces indirect statements, the serial comma is never wrong, sometimes essential, and always a source of measured restraint. What’s a serial comma? I just used one: the comma between essential and and in the first sentence of this paragraph is a serial comma. A serial comma is the comma that separates the last two items in a series of at least three items.
Omitting a serial comma can blur your meaning by making the last item in a series seem to be part of the preceding item, instead of a separate item, as in this example:
This court has several grounds for jurisdiction: the defendant’s local properties, advertising and travel and personal ties that have business implications.
Here, if the writer intends only three categories—local properties, advertising and travel, and personal ties—then a comma between travel and and would clarify the three intended categories.
5. Due to for reason or result instead of for obligation
It’s common anymore for mother-tongue writers or speakers of English to use the due to construction to describe reasons or results (The defendant appears before the court today due to service of a summons upon him.). For the sake of both clarity and elegance, you should save due to for descriptions of obligations (The money due to her totaled $1,000.00.). If you’re writing about causation, use words that clearly and elegantly denote causation (The defendant appears today because a summons was served upon him, or This lawsuit resulted from the parties’ disagreement about the definition.).
6. May instead of might
Many mother-tongue writers use the auxiliary verbs may and might interchangeably. That’s unfortunate because these two words do have separate meanings, and their usage would be less confusing if writers exercised the simple discipline to use the separate meanings consistently.
- may = permission, right, entitlement
- might = possibility
Use those meanings consistently in your English prose, and you’ll clarify an important area of your written Legal English. Consider: The publisher, in its sole discretion, may withhold royalties, but that result might not happen.
7. Slash mark instead of or
Laziness, or perhaps the largely unthinking trendy desire to speed up the English sentence, invades this list again.
Mother-tongue American writers today commonly write sentences punctuated this way: This fall I might go to Milan and/or Rome. (N.B. If you’re consistently using may and might as this post suggests, the preceding sentence’s meaning changes if you use may instead of might.) It’s better to avoid such inelegant laziness and simply write what you mean: This fall I might go to Milan, Rome, or both Milan and Rome. Clearly stating your meaning in such instances does require you to distance yourself, just a little, from the contemporary fashion of seeing oneself as too busy to type a handful or two of extra characters in a document. But that’s OK.
8. Oftentimes instead of often
I venture to say that, until fairly recently, there simply was no such word as oftentimes in English. Even if I see proof that the word has existed for decades or centuries, I’ll still reject the word because its redundancy renders it nonsensical and unnecessary. The word often already contains the idea of “multiple times.” In a very real sense, then, when you say oftentimes, you’re actually saying something like oftentimestimes. Avoid this silliness as often as you can.
9. Utilize instead of use
Americans often put on airs by saying utilize when all they really mean is the normal, everyday concept expressed by the perfectly usable (not utilizable) verb use. Compared to use, the two extra syllables in utilize add no extra meaning whatsoever, and the word conveys an artificial formality that transforms your writing from formal to pompous. Don’t do that.
10. Ongoing instead of continuing
Things do not ongo in English. The verb to ongo does not exist in English. That fact of vocabulary alone makes the present active participle ongoing sheer nonsense. In English, things cannot ongo. They do go on. They persist. They continue. But they absolutely, positively never, ever ongo. Prune the nonsensical ugliness of ongoing from your English vocabulary posthaste. Use the literate, sensible, accurate continuing instead—always.
These points of style certainly are not the only ones that this blog could cover. I already have a list of eight more; I’ll publish another “pet peeves” post when that list grows to another 10-12 points of style that are worth addressing. In the meantime, stay on the good side of this post’s ten points to help keep your English clear when you write legal documents in English.
What other specific points of English grammar or style trouble or bother you? Let me know by posting comments here on the blog, by sending them to me in an email, or by using them to start a discussion thread in the “Advanced ESL Legal English” community on Google+.
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