Category Archives: Grammar and Punctuation

Ending with prepositions

It’s not wrong. It’s less formal.

“There is no rule against ending sentences with prepositions.” Texas Law Review, Manual on Usage & Style 55 (13th ed. 2015).

Is that authoritative? After all, the MoUS is written by students. Yet Bryan Garner agrees: the “rule” against ending a sentence with a preposition is “a superstition that just won’t die.” The Redbook 195 (4th ed. 2013). Strunk and White say so, too: “Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” The Elements of Style 77-78 (4th ed. 2000). Yes, that’s the fourth edition from 2000, but the quoted language is unchanged from first edition in 1959 (see page 64).

Canvass the style manuals and writing references and websites—the answer is near universal. End a sentence with a preposition if you need to. Prepositions are perfectly good words to end sentences with. If you think there’s a rule against ending with a preposition, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

So what’s the deal?

First, a preliminary matter. This blog is about writing, not speech, but ending with a preposition is fine in conversation, right? That’s something I hope we can agree on. In particular, we often end with prepositions when asking questions: Who are you talking about? Where did he disappear to? What did you step on? Most of us would never speak these stiff, over-formal versions: About whom are you talking? To where did he disappear? On what did you step?

Back to writing. Despite the experts (the MoUS, Garner, Strunk & White) the supposed rule against ending propositions still causes lawyers to write sentences like this:

  • Attached are three local rules of which you should be aware.
  • A hammer, not an ax, was the weapon with which he struck the victim.
  • The deponent could not recall in which folder she saved the file.

These sentences are grammatically correct and have no ending prepositions, but to me they’re stilted and unnatural. They don’t flow.

One reason for these stilted sentences is that we know other legal writers believe the supposed rule, and we don’t want to risk annoying those readers or, worse, seeming semi-literate. And so the circle spins on. We know it’s okay to end with a preposition, but we also know some of our readers don’t know it’s okay, so we avoid doing it, perpetuating the no-ending-preposition practice.

What should we do? Rather than treat ending prepositions as wrong or right, a better approach is to think of them as a matter of formality and emphasis.

Ending with a preposition isn’t wrong. It’s less formal. That realization alone leads to some easy decisions. Appellate brief? A highly formal document for an audience whose grammar preferences you probably don’t know well. Avoid ending with prepositions. Memo to a supervisor? A moderately formal document for an audience whose preferences you might know. Unless the audience objects, an occasional ending preposition is acceptable. Work-related email to a colleague? An informal document to a well-known audience. Ending with prepositions is fine.

Ending with a preposition is also a matter of emphasis. You always have options, so you can always avoid ending with a preposition, but knowing when to do it requires experience and what we often call “a good ear.” Here’s an example.

Suppose you want to convey this idea:

  • Silver Partners refused to join any venture Hooper was part of.

That sentence strikes me as succinct and forceful. But you have several options that don’t end with a preposition.

  • Silver Partners refused to join any venture if Hooper was part of it.

Or this:

  • If Hooper was part of the venture, Silver Partners refused to join.

But don’t choose this option:

  • Silver Partners refused to join any venture of which Hooper was part.

It’s always possible to avoid ending with a preposition, and avoiding has no risk. But I offer these two points.

(1) Don’t write the stilted, ending-preposition work-arounds like that last example (of which Hooper was part); they sound unnatural and affected.

(2) If the preposition-ending sentence creates just the tone and emphasis you want, do it.

After all, there is no rule against ending a sentence with preposition.

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Mastering Appositives

The Two Types of Appositives: Restrictive and Nonrestrictive

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that restates or renames another noun. Here, the noun Robin Lang restates or renames defendant:

  • The defendant, Robin Lang, did not hire a lawyer.

But properly punctuating appositives depends on the type of appositive, and the type depends on whether the appositive is essential or additional to the meaning of the original noun. The first type (essential) is called a restrictive appositive. This type of appositive renames or restates the noun in a way that is essential to a full understanding of the sentence. The appositive defines or restricts the original noun in a way that differentiates it from other nouns of that type. For example:

  • The politician Jordan Lopez gave the commencement address.

This sentence implies that there are multiple politicians and that the one who gave the commencement address was Jordan Lopez. That makes sense. If the appositive were set off with commas, it would create confusing implications:

  • The politician, Jordan Lopez, gave the commencement address.

This sentence implies that there is only one politician (in the world?) or that the politician is being differentiated from other nonpoliticians in some way. The commas are unnecessary. Another example using my own name:

  • The dean asked Wayne Schiess the legal-writing teacher to edit the manuscript.

This sentence implies that there are multiple people named Wayne Schiess and that the dean asked one of those Wayne Schiesses—the one who is a legal-writing teacher—to edit the manuscript. Thus, the sentence doesn’t really make sense and should be punctuated like this:

  • The dean asked Wayne Schiess, the legal-writing teacher, to edit the manuscript.

That example, with commas, is a nonrestrictive appositive. Nonrestrictive (also called “nonessential”) appositives present what might be considered additional information, offered as extra or “by the way.” You’d still have a sensible sentence without the appositive.

Returning to our first example:

  • The defendant, Robin Lang, did not hire a lawyer. This means–The defendant [, whose name is Robin Lang, by the way,] did not hire a lawyer. And without the appositive, it would still make sense–The defendant did not hire a lawyer.

Besides a pair of commas, you have other punctuation options for nonrestrictive appositives. If the restating phrase comes at the end of the sentence, use a comma and a period:

  • The party who did not hire a lawyer was the defendant, Robin Lang.

And you may set off appositives with a pair of parentheses, a pair of dashes, or a dash and a period:

  • The defendant (Robin Lang) did not hire a lawyer.
  • The defendant—Robin Lang—did not hire a lawyer.
  • The party who did not hire a lawyer was the defendant—Robin Lang.

The most common mistake I see in using nonrestrictive appositives is failing to include the second comma:

  • Wrong: The defendant, Robin Lang did not hire a lawyer.
  • Wrong: Equitable adoption, a common-law doctrine may apply even in the absence of a court order.

The first example needs a comma after Lang; the second needs one after doctrine.

The differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives come up occasionally in legal writing. If there is only one party on a particular side (one buyer, one defendant, one appellee), then the appositive is likely to be nonrestrictive:

  • The buyer, National Insurance, retained its trial counsel to handle the transaction.

But if there are multiple parties on one side, a restrictive appositive may be appropriate (depending on the context).

  • The respondent Taylor Mura refused to cooperate with the respondent Media Group, LLC.

And of course, in legal writing, we sometimes omit the article the before party appellations:

  • Respondent Taylor Mura refused to cooperate with respondent Media Group, LLC.

Properly punctuating appositives isn’t always simple, but it’s a fundamental and basic skill in legal writing. It’s something careful writers do well.

Legal Writing Nerd: Be One

 

Writing knowledge is like an onion

Level 0 writers think nothing of writing:

  • The lawyer that argued the case …

Level 1 writers have learned enough to believe that one must always refer to a person with personal pronouns (and never with that or it), and so they write:

  • The lawyer who argued the case …

Level 2 writers have looked up this topic and read enough reliable sources to know that there is no such rule, that using that for a person is a widespread and historically common usage, and that it’s primarily misguided sticklers who try to prohibit it; so they go ahead and write:

  • The lawyer that argued the case …

Level 3 writers believe that enough misguided sticklers are in their reading audience that it’s worth conforming to the nonrule to avoid creating the even the mistaken impression of an error; so they write:

  • The lawyer who argued the case …

Level 4 writers have enough confidence in their own writing credibility that they focus on producing clear, readable prose in their own voice; they don’t manipulate the prose to conform to nonrules enforced by misguided sticklers; I don’t know what they would write. 

Legal Writing Nerd: Be One

Don’t over-delete “that”

Over-deleting that can cause miscues.

When I was a young lawyer, a senior attorney edited something I had written and removed the word that in several places, saying, “Whenever you can delete that, do it to streamline the writing.” In the years since, I’ve heard the same advice many times: “delete extraneous thats.”

The advice isn’t wrong, but we sometimes implement it in dysfunctional ways: we sometimes delete that when it isn’t extraneous. Let’s look at a few examples.

1. The respondent argues the statute precludes all common-law claims.
2. The witness said the defendant had lied about the date.

For me, sentence 1 causes a miscue—a momentary misunderstanding—because at first, I think the respondent is “arguing the statute.” Only as I read on do I realize that the respondent is not arguing the statute; the respondent is making an argument about what the statute does. So for me, 1a is better even though it’s one word longer:

1a. The respondent argues that the statute precludes all common-law claims.

But for me, sentence 2 doesn’t cause the same miscue. With the verb “say,” I somehow know that the writer doesn’t mean that the witness “said the defendant.” I know it means that the witness said that the defendant had lied. So if I wrote sentence 2a, I could justifiably leave out that (although retaining it is fine, too):

2a. The witness said that the defendant had lied about the date.

These two examples highlight why deleting that is tricky. It’s difficult to give strict guidelines for when deleting that is justified and when deleting that will cause a miscue.

So I suggest that for many common verbs in legal writing, retain that. Verbs like admit, allege, conclude, find, hold, reason, show, and suggest. Here are some examples in which I think that was wrongly omitted:

3. The court concluded the claim was brought in bad faith.

  • The court concluded the claim? Oh. The court concluded that the claim was brought …

4. A jury will be able to find Mason’s errand was for the benefit of the employer.

  • A jury will be able to find Mason’s errand? Oh. A jury will be able to find that Mason’s errand was for …

5. The Reynosa decision shows the implied duty is distinct from any contractual duty.

  • The Reynosa decision shows the implied duty? Oh. The Reynosa decision shows that the implied duty is distinct …

Without that, these examples can cause a miscue for the typical reader, who’ll end up having to re-read the sentence to get the intended meaning. So over-deleting that results not in concise, streamlined writing but in writing that frustrates.

So rather than a rule for deleting that, I would default to retaining that and remove it when editing only if you’re sure no miscue will result. Use your own editorial judgment or ask a colleague to read and react.

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Wayne Schiess’s columns on legal writing have appeared in Austin Lawyer for more than 11 years. Now they’re compiled in a book: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One.