Mastering the Colon

You could probably use more colons. They’re handy: they can help you write concisely and briskly. In this column I’ll discuss several good colon uses and go over some rules. (I won’t address colons in numerical ratios, in citations to a court record or evidentiary documents, in article titles, or for times.)

The colon is a pointer, according to Bryan A. Garner in The Redbook, § 1.21. “Think of it as an arrow,” he says. It introduces explanations, amplifications, and illustrations.

The defendant has two choices: plead guilty or fight.

Lasker got what the appellate team worked hard to obtain: remand for an evidentiary hearing.

The merger agreement was like a puzzle: working it out was as rewarding as seeing it finished.

Of course, the colon also introduces lists and quotations, according to June Casagrande in The Best Punctuation Book, Period at 63-64. Those are some of the most common colon uses in legal writing.

Summary judgment is inappropriate for three reasons:
(1) …
(2) …
(3) …

In Clendenen v. Kirby, Inc., the court refused to apply equitable tolling to state-agency filing deadlines, stating as follows:

[block quotation]

The text before a colon that introduces a block quotation need not do so explicitly (like “stating as follows”) as long as the sense is clear. In fact, the colon itself often makes the sense clear. It says to the reader, “Hey, I’m about to quote something.”

In Clendenen v. Kirby, Inc., the court refused to apply equitable tolling to state-agency filing deadlines:

[block quotation]

You need no colon after words like including and such as, and most consider it an error.

  • Not this: The defendant hired three lawyers, including: a transactional attorney and an appellate specialist.
  • But this: The defendant hired three lawyers, including a transactional attorney and an appellate specialist.

What structure comes before the colon in regular text? The traditional rule is that a colon should follow only an independent clause. Under that rule, these are wrong:

The testator stated:

The statute provides:

The attachments are:

The direct object or complement that would complete the thought is missing, so it’s not an independent clause. That rule is why we often see these constructions with colons:

The testator made the following statement:

The statute provides as follows:

The attachments are the following:

This traditional rule about independent clauses still applies in formal writing, especially if you know your reader is a punctuation traditionalist. But it’s passing away in most informal writing. And the traditional rule doesn’t apply in one context: Garner says you can ignore it in legal drafting when introducing numbered, lettered, or tabulated subparts. Garner, § 1.28.

The Lessee shall not: (1) paint, wallpaper, alter, or redecorate any portion of the Property; (2) change or install locks; or (3) place signs, displays, or other exhibits on the Property.

The Lessee shall not:
(1) paint, wallpaper, alter, or redecorate any portion of the Property;
(2) change or install locks; or
(3) place signs, displays, or other exhibits on the Property.

What about capitalization? If what follows the colon is not an independent clause, do not capitalize the first word. If what follows the colon is an independent clause, capitalize the first word or don’t, according to your preference, a house style guide, or office practice—but be consistent.

Finally, the colon is appropriate after the greeting or salutation in a formal letter. Casagrande at 65 and Garner, § 1.25.

Informal: Dear Sandra,

Formal: Dear Judge Haynes:

Oh. And one space after colons, if you don’t mind.

A word that doesn’t persuade: blatant

Writing a persuasive document? May I suggest a word to avoid? Avoid the adjective blatant and its adverb form, blatantly. Labeling something as blatant (“offensively conspicuous”) or describing someone as acting blatantly does not persuade. Better to describe the behavior and, if it’s genuinely blatant, its . . . blatancy . . . will be obvious.

Some real examples:

Overstating:

The Appellees’ true motive for proffering this evidence was to inflame the jury with this blatantly irrelevant evidence.

  • And yet the trial judge admitted the evidence. Not that trial judges never err, but given that the evidence was admitted, is its irrelevance really “offensively conspicuous”?

Stretching the meaning:

A gate that forces one to exit the car to open and close it is, however, clearly and blatantly an obstruction that interrupts free access.

  • Okay, that might clearly be an obstruction (I’ll discuss clearly later), but is it blatantly an obstruction? This use stretches the meaning of blatantly and makes it an all-purpose intensifier (like very), ignoring the “offensive” component of the meaning.

Failing to persuade:

This is a blatant misrepresentation of the evidence in the record. Although portions of Zavala’s safety incident were partially re-enacted, the record reveals multiple differences between the re-enactment and Zavala’s accident, including substantial differences in job status, setting, physical acts performed, and the purpose for performing the acts.

  • Try this instead:

“The record shows four key differences between the re-enacted safety incident and Zavala’s accident. Although the re-enactment showed job status A, Zavala’s job status was B. The re-enactment showed setting C, but Zavala’s accident occurred in setting D. The re-enactment showed physical acts W, whereas the accident involved physical acts X. Moreover, the purpose of the acts was Y, yet the accident involved purpose Z.”

  • Or this:

B

Want to begin with “but”? No comma needed.

If you want to begin a sentence with but, you need no comma after it. If you think beginning a sentence with but is too informal for legal writing, that’s fine. I say you’re missing out on a vigorous, forceful transition word. But my point here is that if you’re going to use but to begin a sentence, you need no comma.

Not these:

  • But, such a ban would violate the students’ fundamental rights.
  • But, the presence of alcohol would raise the same concerns.
  • But, an action for contribution against a responsible party can arise in other ways.

But these:

 

  • But such a ban would violate the students’ fundamental rights.
  • But the presence of alcohol would raise the same concerns.
  • But an action for contribution against a responsible party can arise in other ways.

The only exception arises when a comma is needed for some other reason, as when you need a pair of commas for a parenthetical insertion:

  • But, the plaintiff later realized, the money never went to her sister.

 

Texas Law number 1 in salary-to-debt ratio

I think the University of Texas School of Law is awesome, and here’s some data that backs me up. The ABA Journal reports that US News has issued a new ranking that says Texas Law graduates have the best salary-to-debt ratio in the country. Here’s the story:

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/these_law_schools_are_tops_for_median_private_sector_pay_exceeding_student/?utm_source=maestro&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weekly_email

Excellent!

Oops. Mistakes the spellchecker won’t catch.

We all know better than to rely only on a spellchecker, but in case you need more motivation, here are some humorous word mistakes from real documents prepared by real lawyers. (I’ve removed identifying details.)

The staff from Surgical Services, Medical Services, and Pharmacy, as well as all the patients and visitors, observed the bazaar behavior.

  • The word should be bizarre.

This action is nothing more than another viscous attack by Plaintiff against its adversaries’ attorneys.

  • Viscous means thick and sticky in consistency. The writer should use vicious (or maybe should attack the merits instead of describing the plaintiff’s motives).

For all intensive purposes, the Defendant did nothing more than recite the Rules of Evidence at length.

  • The proper phrase here is intents and purposes.

When Chief Kearl was appraised of the situation, he ordered the evacuation, and notice was posted at the property.

  • The right word here is apprised.

Scholars may criticize the Court for failing to apply strict scrutiny in some cases, such as those suggesting unconscious racism, but they do not hone in on the cost of deploying it.

  • The long-standing and preferred phrase here is home in on.*

*The original phrase (home in) comes from the following meaning of home: “to return home” (like a homing pigeon) or to “be guided toward a destination or target.”1 It’s easy to see why hone, meaning “to sharpen”2 seems to make sense, but two prominent word-usage experts insist the phrase should be home in:

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century 274 (2014).

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 412 (3d ed. 2011).

_____

1. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition 701 (1996).

2. Id. at 703.