Category Archives: Grammar and Punctuation

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.


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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.

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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Manage your sentence length

What’s a good average sentence length for legal writing?

I once asked a group of lawyers at a CLE seminar that question. “Thirteen words,” one lawyer volunteered. “Seven,” said another. Wow. Writing about legal matters with an average of seven words per sentence isn’t realistic, is it? That means for every sentence of ten words, you’ve got to write one of four words to bring the average to seven. That would be tough.

But the instinct is right. Steven Stark, author of Writing to Win, says the more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be. So what’s a more realistic goal? The experts say between 20 and 25 words:

  • below 25—Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
  • about 22—Enquist & Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
  • about 20—Garner in Legal Writing in Plain English

How do you know your average sentence length?

You can program Microsoft Word to tell you. In Word 2010 and 2013, go to File > Options > Proofing and look for “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.” Now check the box for “Show readability statistics.”

You’ll also be required to check the box for “Check grammar with spelling.” If you dislike running a grammar-check every time you run a spell-check, go into the grammar settings and uncheck as many boxes as you like. You’re telling Word to stop checking for all those grammar items—it gets most of them wrong anyway. (For more on using grammar checker wisely, see Customize Word’s Grammar Checker from the October 2012 Austin Lawyer.)

With those settings, when you finish a spell-check you’ll see a display that includes the average sentence length. Of course, the tool isn’t perfect. If you have citations or headings in your text, Word will think those are sentences—short sentences—and your average sentence length will be artificially low. To work around this problem, select a paragraph or group of paragraphs without headings or citations and then run the spell-check; do it three times in different places. This will give you a sense of your average sentence length.

If your average sentence length is in the 30s, or even the high 20s, you’re taxing your readers. Do a thorough edit for concision and efficiency. If your average sentence length is in the teens, well done. You’re pleasing your readers. And remember, average sentence length doesn’t mean uniform sentence length. You should vary your sentence length. Write some short sentences and some longer ones.

How long is too long?

We lawyers have a reputation for long sentences. It’s probably not all our fault. After all, the subject matter of most legal writing lends itself to qualifications, modifiers, asides, and lists—so we might be forgiven. Yet I’m sure we can do better. Here’s a suggestion: Decide on a maximum sentence length and promise yourself you’ll cut any sentence that exceeds your maximum. For example, mine is 45. I’ve decided that when a single sentence I’ve written exceeds 45 words, it’s an automatic edit.

Of course, some gifted writers can create long sentences that are pleasant to read; they usually use long but perfectly parallel phrases in a series. Or they use lots of semicolons. It can work in literature and, occasionally, in law. But for most of us doing legal writing, long sentences are hard to read and hard to follow. So avoid over-long sentences.

In managing sentence length and avoiding over-long sentences, it’s not practical to count words while you’re typing. Instead, manage sentence length on the edit. As you read your writing, keep an eye out for any sentence that fills three or more lines of text or any sentence that just makes you tired. Use your cursor to select that sentence, and Word will tell you the word count at the bottom left of your screen. For me, if it’s more than 45, it’s an automatic edit.

So that’s the advice. For readable writing that doesn’t tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low 20s, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.


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