December 11, 2018

The Grammar Dilemma: Which Rules Are Worth Knowing

“None of you are guilty” or “None of you is guilty”? Can I use “since” as a synonym for “because” or can I only use it to reference time? One space or two between sentences? Is it email or e-mail? Some people have strong feelings about these kinds of questions. But many exasperate “who cares?!”

We are lawyers. We are busy. We have limited time. When is it worth perusing a six-inch thick book to find a grammar rule? Almost never.

Nonetheless, to write clearly you need to understand the ambiguity of English grammar.

The Next Person That Recommends Strunk & White . . .

Since freshman orientation people have always told me to worship Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I’m pretty sure 98% of those people have never read the book. I’m equally sure 99% of the U.S. population has not. These statistics are not backed by data, just my gut. But in fairness, most of our grammar sense comes from our gut—if this phrase “sounds” right it must be right. Turns out, the Gut Theory of Grammar works pretty well. It works pretty well because there are no grammar rules. Let’s circle back to the Elements of Style.

Most people recommend the Elements of Style because other people recommended it to them. This daisy chain advice is so long no one remembers where it started. But surely the book gained credence for a reason.

Who were Strunk and White? They were co-chairs of the National Commission of American English created by President Nixon to develop consistency in how American students learned the language. Just kidding. There is no commission. Unlike France, the United States has no official body that determines language rules.[1] Strunk and White are two people who sat down to write a book about grammar. Strunk was a college professor who authored the original edition around 1919.[2] White, who authored Charlotte’s Web, revised the book in 1959.[3] Neither had unique authority to assert anything was or was not a rule.

But surely the wide acceptance of the Elements of Style gave it credence after-the-fact? Nope. It’s one thing to wear a t-shirt with a nerdy grammar pun like “Poor Grammar Makes Me [sic].” It’s a different level to publish an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” tearing into Strunk & White. But that’s what Professor Pullum did.[4] He describes Strunk & White as “grammatical incompetents” and their advice as ranging “from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense” that has “significantly degraded” students understanding of English.[5] Ouch. And he’s not alone. Others have called the book unsystematic, chaotic, and unhelpful.[6] But, to be clear, the book still has supporters.[7] And not everyone agrees with Professor Pullum.[8]

It’s Much Worse Than You Think

Even if the Elements of Style is not perfect (and presumably no other book is), the legal community might silently agree on certain rules. Putting aside obscure stylistic choices, surely we agree on essentials like what a word means? Buckle up.

Since time immemorial teachers and bosses pounced on subordinates for confusing “literally” and “figuratively.” Something is literally true when it can and did happen. It is figuratively true when it cannot or did not happen. So “When I heard the news my heart stopped” is figuratively true, unless after hearing the news my blood stopped circulating in which case it is then literally true. Only not. Consult a dictionary to discover literally and figuratively are sometimes synonyms. Merriam Webster has a persuasive article and video defending the definitions and explaining how authors can use “literally” hyperbolically to mean “figuratively.”[9] There’s an indie romantic comedy here where former antonyms become synonyms.

Here’s another skull-buster. Most of us bleed from the ears when we hear the word “irregardless.” A Pavlovian reflex shocks our system with feelings of valley-girl bastardized English. But oh yes, you guessed it. It is a word. In fact, one of Merriam Webster’s lexicographers (the people that write dictionaries) made a video defending it.[10] “Irregardless” means “empathically regardless.”[11] Oddly, the lexicographer recommends not using the word because so many people think it is not a real word.[12]

English grammar is a mess.

What to Do

We want our readers to find us credible and to understand what we write. But grammar rules are unclear. And we are not going to attach an appendix showing we correctly used a comma on page six.

Begin by accepting the inevitable. You usually have no idea what grammar rules your audience subscribes to. A judge might know a rule, not know a rule, or know a rule that is not a rule.

Next, adapt to your audience. To write clearly you need to know what grammar rules exist—real rules, discredited rules, misunderstood rules, all rules. Even with maximum effort, you cannot avoid breaking some rule believed by someone somewhere. But, with this understanding you can ensure your writing is clear.

When a Grammar Rule is Unclear, Strive For Clarity

When your writing implicates an unclear grammar rule, prioritize clarity. Consider the that/which rule:

The Safety Instructor asked the student to get the gas tank, which has red tape on it.

The Safety Instructor asked the student to get the gas tank that has red tape on it.[13]

In the first sentence there is one tank and it has red tape. [14] “Which” introduces additional information. [15] So, if the student were just told “Go get the gas tank” the student would return with the same tank because only one exists. [16] By contrast, in the second sentence “that” introduces essential information; there are multiple tanks and the instructor wants the one with red tape.[17]

But you cannot count on your reader taking away this distinction. Your reader may not know the rule or may have the rule reversed. So if it is important to understand there were multiple tanks and the instructor asked only for the one with red tape, you need to do more.

You have a few options. You can avoid the that/which rule by rewriting the sentence more explicitly: there were eight tanks and the instructor asked for the one with red tape. Or you can add a clarifying sentence: When the student went into the storage room he saw a pile of tanks and grabbed the one with red tape.

Ultimately, awareness of ambiguous grammar cannot prevent a reader from enforcing a random grammar belief. But that awareness can help us ensure the reader gets our message.

If Most Judges Believe a Rule, Follow It

Recall the figuratively/literally and irregardless examples. There we learned some grammar beliefs are incorrect. But you being correct according to an external source is irrelevant to your case. Write for your audience. If the court has certain grammar preferences, follow them.

Think of a basic rule indoctrinated into you with no reasoning behind it. A rule like capitalize the first letter of each sentence. if you stopped capitalizing those letters, would it confuse anyone? would readers misinterpret your words? nope. but everyone would notice and everyone would think you are wrong. the historical reason for this rule doesn’t matter. even if you found a source saying it is unnecessary, the result will only hurt you.

Although few courts publish elaborate style guides, you can discern grammar preferences from court opinions, former law clerks, and CLEs with the judges. Use that information to preserve credibility and avoid disruption.

Conclusion

When it comes to grammar, write for clarity not accuracy.


[1] George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure: Writing From the Reader’s Perspective 196 (2004).

[2] William Strunk Jr.; E.B. White, The Elements of Style xiii-xviii; 87 (4th ed. 2000); Geoffrey K. Pullum, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 1 (April 17, 2009), available at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf.

[3] Strunk &White, supra n. 2 at 1; Pullum, supra n. 2 at 1.

[4] Pullum, supra n. 2 at 1

[5] Id. Pullum didn’t let it go after only one article: Geoffrey K. Pullum, “The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” 26 English Today 2, 102 (June 2, 2010), available at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.pdf.

[6] Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyers Guide to Writing Well 9-10 (3d ed. 2016).

[7] See, e.g., “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books: No. 23 The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White (1959),” The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/04/100-best-nonfiction-books-all-time-elements-style-william-strunk-eb-white.

[8] To see how some of Pullum’s critiques may be overstated, see Ross Guberman, “Did Strunk & White Give “Stupid Advice?,” available at https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/strunk-white-give-stupid-advice/ (last visited May 20, 2018).

[9] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/misuse-of-literally (last visited May 20, 2018); Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Literally- Merriam Webster- Ask The Editor,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai_VHZq_7eU (last visited May 20, 2018).

[10] Business Insider, “‘Irregardless’ is a real word – you’re just using it wrong,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEJ2HF3xuFk (last visited May 20, 2018).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] This is a variation of the rake example provided in Gopen, supra n. 1 at 5.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

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Comments

  1. David Bye says:

    How do you keep from distracting those of us who were raised to follow the grammar rules we learned well in junior high and high school? I flinch every time I hear “I’m going to lay down now” or “I laid down to rest” I flinch. Even though I recognize that we language purists have lost that battle, it still bothers me.

    Even the more subtle errors, such as using ” But you being correct according to an external source is irrelevant to your case” instead of “But your being correct according to an external source is irrelevant to your case” can be distracting to us grammar nuts. Yes, it is clear what you mean, but so is “Me and Henry is going to the store.” At what point do historical customs become “rules”?

    At any rate, it’s an interesting topic for discussion.

  2. Mary Jo Gross says:

    Sorry, but I disagree. There are grammar rules and, if observed, writing will be clear and accurate. A good reference book is Woe Is I, which explains rules clearly and has a section that describes rules that are antiquated and are not in use. This reference book also has a section that explains situations that can be troublesome, such as “affect/effect,” “that/which,” and rules concerning apostrophes. Some still bristle when they see common mistakes, even though the meaning is clear. And I imagine one doesn’t want a judge or his clerk to bristle when reading pleadings.

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