Tips for Concision: 1. Don’t fear possessives

Don’t fear possessives.

Why do we write this way?

  • the vehicle of the defendant
  • the property of the seller
  • the intent of the testator

It’s probably just habit or imitating the sound of legal writing in our heads. But those five-word phrases could be shortened to three:

  • the defendant’s car
  • the seller’s property
  • the testator’s intent

Are some legal writers avoiding possessives out of a fear of making an apostrophe mistake? Or out of a sense that possessives are informal (like contractions, which also use apostrophes)? Probably not, but let’s be clear: Possessive forms are not informal. Use them to improve concision.

A few legal writers were taught that inanimate things cannot possess—that it’s wrong to write the book’s title, the nation’s capital, or the chair’s leg. Instead, we must write the title of the book, the capital of the nation, and the leg of the chair. If it sounds a bit odd to you, you’re right. There’s no such rule, and those who promoted this idea were misconstruing the grammatical term “possessive.” In fact, a better term for “possessive” is “genitive case,” which carries no connotation of ownership. See Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 475 (1994).

Occasionally the of form is preferable; you’ll write sentences in which intent of the testator just fits better or conveys your intended meaning more clearly. So I’m not offering a rule or a universally mandated edit. Just one technique to improve concision.

More to come.


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