Category Archives: Grammar and Punctuation

Beginning with “however”?

“My boss [professor, English teacher] told me never to begin a sentence with however.”

I’ve heard this comment a number of times from law students and lawyers, and it’s often followed by a sincere “Why?” In this post I’ll discuss where this advice comes from and suggest that it’s a stylistic suggestion, not a rule.

The most likely source of this prohibition is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Their advice against beginning with however is consistent through four editions: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’”[1] Why that advice? Strunk and White believed that when however comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”[2] Here’s a pair of examples that show what they were thinking:

a. However it turns out, the policy will cover the loss.
b. However, it turns out the policy will cover the loss.

In example a, however means “in whatever way,” but in b it means “nevertheless.” What distinguishes the meanings is the comma after however in example b. Apparently, Strunk and White worried that young writers (The Elements of Style is for college students, after all) would include or omit the comma incorrectly, creating an ambiguous however—hence the prohibition. Under the prohibition, when you mean “nevertheless,” you must move however into the sentence and set it off with commas. Here, examples c and d follow the rule against beginning with however, and example e breaks it.

c. The brief, however, does not address personal jurisdiction.
d. The brief does not, however, address personal jurisdiction.
e. However, the brief does not address personal jurisdiction.

Yet in reality, there’s no rule against beginning with however. According to Bryan Garner, beginning with however is “not a grammatical error.”[3] Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage declares that “there is no absolute rule for the placement of however.”[4] And Terri LeClercq says you may “use however in any position.”[5]

So for the meaning “nevertheless” or “on the other hand,” it’s fine to begin with however [plus a comma]. Legal writers can master comma rules sufficiently well to avoid the ambiguity Strunk and White feared. And beginning with however is not only grammatically justified, it has the advantage of signaling contrast for readers immediately, rather than later in the sentence. For example:

g. We closed the deal on Thursday. However, the payment arrived on Friday.

Of course, you can also place however mid-sentence to create desired emphasis, as we saw in examples c and d above. Just be sure that if you use a pair of commas, however isn’t separating independent clauses, which would require a semicolon and comma.

h. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday. The payment, however, arrived on Friday.
i. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday; however, the payment arrived on Friday.
j. Wrong: We closed the deal on Thursday, however, the payment arrived on Friday.

Example j is a run-on sentence or comma splice, an error I occasionally see in legal writing. Of course, you could use but in these sentences and simplify the punctuation while punching up the transition. In fact, if there’s a stylistically justified reason to avoid beginning with however, it’s that however is a heavy, multi-syllabic transition.

k. We closed the deal on Thursday, but the payment arrived on Friday.
l. We closed the deal on Thursday. But the payment arrived on Friday.

So if your boss or professor tells you not to begin with however, think of it as a stylistic suggestion—but one you’re required to follow. Otherwise, place however where it creates the emphasis you want, even if that’s at the beginning. And consider but.[6]

_____

  1. William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 48 (4th ed. 2000).
  2. Id. at 49.
  3. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 415 (3d ed. 2011).
  4. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 515 (1994).
  5. Terri LeClercq, Expert Legal Writing 180 (1995).
  6. Wayne Schiess, Beginning with But, Austin Lawyer 11 (July/August 2013).

Tips for Concision 12: Revise unnecessary nominalizations.

A nominalization is a noun that could have been a verb.

For example, when nominalized, the verb pay becomes payment. To function as a verb, the noun payment needs help, so we write make a payment. Legal writing is full of these nominalized constructions:

  • enter a settlement > settle
  • bring suit against > sue
  • provide an explanation > explain
  • achieve a reduction > reduce
  • conduct an analysis > analyze

Nominalizations are so common in legal writing that experts have coined plainer terms:

Nominalizations aren’t wrong, just wordy. We lawyers like them, I think, because they sound serious and formal. But when you have a choice, the plain verb form is always more concise than the nominalized form. What’s more, the verb form is more energetic. So when you implement a revision (revise) for nominalizations, you get vigor as well as concision.

 

Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

A collective noun refers to a group of people or things. Group, for example, is a collective noun. Legal writers often have to deal with collective nouns, and here are some of the most common: board, council, court, faculty, government, jury, majority, panel, and staff. When using collective nouns, writers occasionally face questions of subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement. This post addresses both.

Subject-verb agreement

The key question is whether to treat collective nouns as singular or plural. Should we write the jury is or the jury are? Although a jury, like all collective nouns, is a group of individuals, the better practice is to treat collective nouns as singular and to write the jury is, as well as the council decides, the panel hears, and so on.

But the experts agree that it’s not always that simple. According to Bryan Garner, in the United States, we usually treat collective nouns as a singular unit and use the singular verb. “But if the emphasis is on the individuals in the group, the plural verb form is best.”1 The editors of Merriam-Webster’s English Usage Dictionary agree: “[W]hen the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”2

By the way, British English is different, and I won’t address it here except to say that when I watch a football match (soccer game) with British commentators, it’s always jarring to hear them say, “Chelsea’s team are very talented.”

So in the Unites States, if you’re writing about faculty, you might write this:

a. The faculty [as a singular entity] gratefully acknowledges the assistance of volunteer judges.

But this:

b. The faculty [individually] are of different minds on the subject of pass-fail courses.

Another example:

c. The consultant will study how staff [as a singular entity] in rural hospitals gathers and evaluates the performance of doctors with clinical privileges.

But then this:

d. The staff in rural hospitals [individually] create performance-assessment reports.

As you can see, it can be tricky to decide if you’re thinking of a collective noun singularly or individually, and even more tricky to decide how your reader will perceive it. That’s why the safest practice is to treat collective nouns as singular entities that take singular verbs and to do so consistently within any one document.

A frequent and widely recommended work-around is to use “members” or “members of,” which clarifies the proper verb. So the jury was seated in the hallway becomes the members of the jury were seated in the hallway. And the board meets on the first Thursday becomes the board members meet on the first Thursday. This work-around is useful even if it causes a small loss of concision.

Pronoun agreement

If collective nouns are generally singular, they should take the pronouns it and its, not they, them, or their.

Wrong: The council needed to review the transcript before they could vote.
Right: The council needed to review the transcript before it could vote.

Treating a court as plural is a fairly common error among novice legal writers:

Wrong: The court must first determine whether they have jurisdiction.
Right: The court must first determine whether it has jurisdiction.

This error might arise from the perception that intermediate appellate courts often hear cases in panels of three and that highest courts often hear cases as a body of nine. Yet the court is a singular entity, no matter how many judges make it up. If the writer is thinking of the judges individually, it would be better to write this: The judges must first determine if they have jurisdiction.

Collective nouns are generally singular and take singular verbs and pronouns. If you think you have an exception, go ahead, but use your best editorial judgment and get a second opinion.

[1] Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 172 (3d ed. 2011).

[2] Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 257 (1994).

Hyphenating Pre-fixes

Should we write pre-trial or pretrial? Non-statutory or nonstatutory? Co-sponsor or cosponsor?

As legal writers, we often have to decide whether to use a hyphen for a prefix. By the way, no hyphen in prefix, despite the hyphen in the title; I was just being clever. In this post I’ll discuss the default rule for hyphenating prefixes as well as the exceptions. (FYI: This blog breaks words at the right margin and inserts hyphens I can’t control. Sorry.)

The default rule is to omit most hyphens: pretrial, nonstatutory, cosponsor. According to Joan Magat in The Lawyer’s Editing Manual, the same rule applies to multiracial, nongovernmental, semiliterate, and underutilize. Even when the result is a doubled letter, omitting the hyphen is generally correct, according to Bryan Garner’s Redbook. So interrelate, misspell, overrate, posttrial, preempt, and reelect. Omitting the hyphen can produce words your spell-checker doesn’t recognize, but “they are nonetheless correct,” according to June Casagrande in The Best Punctuation Book, Period.

Now the exceptions.

Certain prefixes always take a hyphen, and Magat and Garner agree on four that require a hyphen in legal writing: all-, ex-, quasi-, and self-. So all-encompassing, all-knowing, ex-convict, ex-president, quasi-contract, quasi-public, self-assessment, and self-serving.

When the prefix precedes a capital letter or a numeral, use a hyphen. Casagrande, Garner, and Magat agree on this: non-American, anti-Semitic, post-1986, and pre-9/11.

Bring in a hyphen when omitting it could create a miscue, an ambiguity, or confusion—because the unhyphenated word looks like another word:

  • Judge Kean spent most of her pre-judicial career at Lowery & Townes.
  • Forbes rejected the Petitioner’s request to re-sign the contract.
  • The incident resulted from an unexpected re-formation of river ice.
  • Andrick’s video was meant to re-create the events at issue.

The experts also recommend a hyphen when omitting it could create an awkward or hard-to-pronounce compound. Here you must exercise editorial judgment; as you’ll see, the experts’ examples aren’t always consistent with other guidance. Here are the examples the experts say should be hyphenated:

  • Casagrande: anti-inclusive, intra-arterial, ultra-apathetic
  • Garner: anti-intellectual, post-sentencing, pro-abstinence
  • Magat: co-opt, co-worker, non-odious

Thus, we’ve arrived at our guidelines for hyphenating prefixes.

A no-hyphen approach is preferred, with three exceptions: (1) with all-, ex-, quasi-, and self; (2) before numerals and capital letters; and (3) to avoid awkwardness—exercising your best editorial judgment.

For detailed guidance, see The Chicago Manual of Style § 7.79, which is followed in § 7.85 by a 9-page table table with rules for hyphenating specific prefixes and words. Magat’s book, The Lawyer’s Editing Manual, also contains a list of prefixes that are generally unhyphenated, with exceptions.

The legal-writing teacher who makes mistakes

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I make writing mistakes. My students and colleagues will tell you so. I’m not the world’s greatest proofreader; I’m easily distracted and lazy and hasty. Yet I can be judgmental about others’ mistakes. So I try to soften my judgments and practice patience, hoping it will be reciprocated. Several years ago, I wrote this about mistakes. It contains a confession.

A former student sent me this comment, carried in a major newspaper, from a senior partner at a law firm:

Do not ever for the second time give your senior a piece of writing with a typo or a grammatical mistake. I will take it once and I will tell the junior my set speech. But if it happens again? Well, find out for yourself.

I have three problems with this statement.

1. The speaker is talking about litigation writing. (If you visit the firm’s website and look this person up, you’ll see that the person is a litigator.) My former student rightly points out that this kind of expectation is probably unrealistic for some transactional drafting:

I’m not a bad writer, but far from perfect. On occasion I miss small errors in my work. I might draft a 160-page credit agreement, based on a form that itself had errors. Some of those errors are minor, such as a stray parenthesis, misplaced comma, etc. Others are more serious and could lead to ambiguity. Of course, I try to catch everything, but I don’t think I’ve turned in a perfect draft once yet. Nor have I seen a perfect document yet from other attorneys unless the document is very short.

Perfect work is rare, but perfect work in the context of a 160-page credit agreement is likely impossible on the first draft. Of course, the speaker is thinking of a motion or a brief or a memo. These are rarely more than 50 pages and are often much shorter. So the speaker should have qualified his remarks for the context in which he works.

2. I think the speaker’s statement is hyperbole, intended to scare young lawyers. Of course, you must proofread your work carefully—very carefully. You should try to turn in perfect work every time. But you must acknowledge that it is not possible to turn in perfect work every time. For example, I wrote a 230-page book, which I proofread myself and had two others proofread. I later found 4 typos in it. I was chagrined and dismayed and embarrassed. But that’s life. Perfect work is rare. In truth, it’s unusual for me to read a book—and I read almost exclusively books about writing—and not find at least one mistake. So the speaker should be more realistic. Besides, the speaker’s not perfect either . . .

3. The speaker makes mistakes, too. This is often what those who claim to expect perfect work forget or seem blind to. I read the speaker’s profile on the firm’s website, and I found two mistakes. Granted, they were fine points of punctuation (and I’m not talking about the serial comma, which the speaker does not use, by the way). But they were mistakes according to the Texas Law Review Manual on Usage and Style, The Redbook, and The Chicago Manual of Style.

So there.