Category Archives: Grammar and Punctuation

It’s okay to split; in fact, it’s often better.

There is no rule against splitting infinitives, and writing authorities have said so for decades. But the myth and the practice persist. The authors of the next three sentences believe you cannot place an adverb between to and the verb in an infinitive. But would you write these sentences?

Electronic filing makes it easier for courts to locate instantly and focus on relevant portions of documents.

  • “to locate instantly and focus”? Confusing.

The resulting hyperlinked brief allows the judge reviewing it on a desktop computer or a mobile device to access quickly identified portions of the record.

  • “to access quickly identified portions . . .” Miscue.

Modern computer screens fail to recreate adequately certain tactile experiences.

  • “to recreate adequately” Awkward.

Don’t write this way. I wouldn’t. And I probably would have spelled it re-create.

Don’t be a stickler?

“The idea that there are exactly two approaches to usage—all the traditional rules must be followed or else anything goes—is the sticklers’ founding myth. The first step in mastering usage is to understand why this myth is wrong.”

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style 188 (2014).

Tips for Concision: 5. Eliminate excessive prepositions

Eliminate excessive prepositions.

One way to lengthen a sentence is to stack up prepositional phrases, especially using of. With too many prepositions, writing lacks flow. It’s also longer. Count the prepositions in this sentence—they’re conveniently highlighted:

There is no current estimate of the number of boxes of records in the possession of the school.

The sentence has five prepositions among its 18 words. That’s not an error, but it’s choppy. So when you edit, tune your ear for excessive prepositions and cut the ones you can. In this example, we can cut at least two and possibly three, reducing sentence length from 18 to 15 or even 14:

There is no current estimate of the number of boxes of records the school possesses.

We have no current estimate of how many boxes of records the school possesses.

Eliminating excessive prepositions is a well recommended technique for improving prose:

  • “Multiple prepositional phrases will affect the vigor of your writing.” Megan McAlpin, Beyond the First Draft 55 (2014).
  • “Reducing the ofs by 50% or so can greatly improve briskness and readability.” Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 51 (2d ed. 2013).
  • “Look closely at any sentence that depends heavily on prepositions, and if you count more than three phrases in a row, consider revising.” Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line 8 (1985).

Here’s another example:

A knowledge of correct trial procedures is the duty of all of the members of the bar of this state.

This sentence has five prepositional phrases in 21 words. And you’ll agree, I hope, that it’s an awkward little thing. But now we have better terminology; we don’t just say it’s awkward, we say it has excessive prepositions. When we edit, we focus on removing them:

All state-bar members must know correct trial procedure.

That’s concision.


Care to comment? Email me.

Tips for Concision: 4. Cut throat-clearing phrases


Cut throat-clearing phrases.

These are flabby sentence openers that try to manufacture emphasis but just postpone getting to the point. They look this this:

  • It is clear that . . . .
  • It is important to point out that . . . .
  • It would appear to be the case that . . . .
  • A key aspect of this case, which must not be overlooked, is . . . .
  • The Defendant would respectfully draw to the court’s attention that . . . .

And no, I didn’t make this up. Many writing guides advise against “throat-clearers.” Here’s a website.

Why avoid them? They’re “needless buildups” (Garner, The Elements of Legal Style); “merely space-fillers” (LeClercq, Legal Writing Style); and “convey little if any information” (Enquist & Oates, Just Writing).

Your writing will be more concise, and stronger, without them.


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Tips for Concision: 3. Diminish sesquipedalian vocabulary


Reduce big words

Sesquipedalian (sesqui + ped) means a foot and a half long, and it’s exactly the kind of word to avoid. Unless you need a term of art or a legal word, your writing will be more concise and more readable if you use an everyday word instead of a fancy one.

So change ascertain to learn, commence to start, and request to ask.

For more ideas, check out Joseph Kimble’s list (available online) in the Michigan Bar Journal: Joseph Kimble, Plain Words, 80 Mich. B.J. 72 (Aug. 2001).

As you edit, root out words that are ostentatious (fancy), abstruse (hard), and infrequent (rare). Don’t write

She indicated she had previously encountered this conundrum

when you could write

She said she had faced this problem before.

But wait. Lawyers are smart and are used to reading and using sesquipedalian vocabulary. So if we’re capable of handling big words, why should we use small ones? Why should we dumb down our writing?

Let me be clear: to write concisely you don’t need to limit your own vocabulary. In fact, the larger your vocabulary, the better a writer you’re likely to be. As Rudolf Flesch said, it’s not about knowing big words; it’s about using them:

So if you have a big vocabulary and know a lot of rare and fancy words, that’s fine. Be proud of your knowledge. It’s important in reading and in learning. But when it comes to using your vocabulary, don’t throw those big words around where they don’t belong. . . . It’s a good rule to know as many rare words as possible for your reading, but to use as few of them as possible in your writing.

Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Better 25, 35 (1951).

More to come.