Category Archives: Grammar and Punctuation

Semicolons: Not so Useless


“How useless is the semicolon?”

A lawyer once asked me this question (emphasis in the original) and proceeded to offer three points in support. First, he said, a period can fulfill some of the semicolon’s functions, and second, a comma can fulfill the rest. Third, people abuse and confuse semicolons enough that we’d be better off without them. Well, I had to concede some of his points. But I was determined not to let “Mr. Useless,” as I’ll call him, get the better of me. No. I believe lawyers, as professional writers, have legitimate uses for the semicolon. Here are four.

1. Semicolons can separate independent clauses.
An independent clause has a subject and a verb and could be a sentence by itself. We can separate independent clauses with a period—as I had to concede to Mr. Useless.

We do not object to the amount of the fees. We ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.

But a period between independent clauses says, “Full stop. New idea.” A semicolon between independent clauses says, “Pause; related idea.”

We do not object to the amount of the fees; we ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.

So, Mr. Useless, the semicolon gives the professional writer another option—another tool for connecting ideas.

2. Semicolons separate phrases in a series when one or more of the phrases has internal commas.
This is a useful function more lawyers should apply. When you have three or more phrases in a series, you normally separate them with commas, which tells readers where each phrase ends. But when one of the phrases has commas within it, readers can get lost. In those cases, use the semicolon as a “super comma.” A basic example:

I have a sister in Princeton, New Jersey; a sister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a brother in Great Falls, Montana.

Contract drafters should get to know this semicolon. The modifiers and qualifications that appear in contract language sometimes result in sentences like this:

All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production, of price, publication and advertisement, and the number of, and distribution of, editorial review and free copies will be left to the discretion of the Publisher.

Got that? It’s better with semicolons acting like super commas:

All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production; price, publication, and advertisement; and the number and distribution of editorial-review and free copies will be left to the Publisher’s discretion.

And that, Mr. Useless, is something a period or comma can’t do.

3. Semicolons separate the items in a numbered list.
This isn’t so much a rule as a convention in legal writing. When you write a simple, textual list or series, you separate the items with commas—as I again had to concede to Mr. Useless. For example:

When arguing a case to the jury, remember to maintain regular eye contact, keep your argument short, and close with a challenge.

But in legal writing, once you number the items, semicolons become conventional, even though commas would also be correct:

When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things: (1) maintain regular eye contact; (2) keep your argument short; and (3) close with a challenge.

Semicolons are even more conventional when you tabulate the numbered list.

When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things:
(1) maintain regular eye contact;
(2) keep your argument short; and
(3) close with a challenge.

Why quarrel with convention, Mr. U?

4. Semicolons separate the authorities in a string citation.
Simple enough, and it’s one we already knew: Moran v. Adler, 570 S.W.2d 883, 888 (Tex. 1978); Heien v. Crabtree, 369 S.W.2d 28, 30 (Tex. 1963).

And you can’t use periods or commas for that, can you, Mr. Useless?


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The compound-modifier hyphen connects and clarifies

Take advantage of our new customer discount. This means a new discount for customers, but I bet the writer meant a discount for new customers. We’re selling a little used car. This means the car is small, but I bet the writer meant the car had been used only a little. He has a family law practice. This means he practices with a relative, but I bet the writer meant he takes divorce cases.

What causes confusion in these examples is the absence of a hyphen. The rule—and yes, it’s a rule of written English, although some of us never learned it—requires a hyphen between words that jointly modify a noun. The Chicago Manual of Style § 7.81 (16th ed. 2010). These jointly modifying words are called “compound modifiers” or “phrasal adjectives.”

Careful writers hyphenate compound modifiers: Take advantage of our new-customer discount. We’re selling a little-used car. He has a family-law practice. The hyphen clarifies meaning, instantly telling the reader that the words modify the noun jointly, not independently. When the modifying phrase follows the noun, you need no hyphen: We offer a discount to a new customer. The car we’re selling is little used. His practice is in family law. You also need no hyphen for proper nouns (United States treaties), foreign phrases (prima facie case), and adverbs ending in -ly (highly skilled writer). You do need a hyphen for well phrases, like well-pleaded complaint, well-known jurist, and well-rounded person.

Some legal writers doubt the rule and say they don’t see compound-modifier hyphens in other writing. But the truth is they’re everywhere. We don’t notice them because they’re doing their job—smoothing out our reading and eliminating miscues. For the skeptical, I offer a sampling of hyphenated modifiers from a single edition of my local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. I recorded the first ten I saw:

single-family home
five-day period
technology-based processing system
city-owned street
since-discredited promise
60-vote majority
two-thirds requirement
far-reaching change
board-appointed reviewer
call-center jobs

If you look for them, you’ll find compound-modifier hyphens in any well-edited publication.

You can use several hyphens if the modifying phrase has several words. So all the following are correct: all-or-nothing strategy, on-the-spot investigation, two-year-old plan. But don’t get carried away with long, hyphenated modifying phrases. This might be okay: a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach, but this is too much: a let-the-jury-struggle-with-it-and-figure-it-out attitude.

You can also use a “suspended hyphen” if you don’t want to repeat the second part of two similar compound modifiers. So instead of right-brain and left-brain functions, you can do this: right- and left-brain functions, or 15- and 30-year mortgages.

In applying these hyphen rules, legal writers sometimes encounter a problem. In law we have many familiar expressions and phrases that technically require hyphens but that will not confuse if left unhyphenated. For example, all these would take hyphens: summary-judgment motion, good-faith effort, reasonable-person standard. But hyphenating them can seem pointless and, given that some readers don’t know the rule for compound-modifier hyphens, adding a hyphen might cause more confusion than it saves.

So you have a choice.

You can apply the hyphenate-your-compound-modifiers rule at all times, uniformly, even to familiar phrases. That way, you don’t have to stop and think about whether you’re causing confusion. You just follow the rule: I always hyphenate compound modifiers, and this is a compound modifier, so I’ll hyphenate. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, supports this “flat rule.”

Or you can apply the hyphenation rule when confusion might result, but not to familiar legal phrases. So you’d hyphenate high-performing employee and public-agency exception but not common law doctrine, third party beneficiary, or summary judgment motion. Of course, with the case-by-case approach you have to gauge your audience’s knowledge and differentiate general audiences from specialized ones. Thus, you’d probably need to hyphenate differently for a labor lawyer and for a generalist judge and maybe even for the judge’s clerk. As you can see, you avoid wrestling with tough calls if you apply the flat rule.

Whether you apply the flat rule or a case-by-case standard, put “hyphenate compound modifiers” or “hyphenate phrasal adjectives” on your editing checklist.


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Customize Word’s Grammar Checker

Do you use Microsoft Word’s grammar checker? I’ve asked hundreds of lawyers at CLE seminars over the years, and the near-unanimous answer is no. I hear muttered words like “useless,” and “stupid.”

I agree—if you run the grammar check with the default settings.

About half the suggestions it offers will be just plain wrong. Most of the rest will be things you know but don’t want to change. So it’s useless, right?

There’s a better way to use the grammar checker: reject the default settings and customize a handful of your own preferences or areas to improve. Word’s grammar checker does only a few things well, so don’t waste time using the default settings. Instead, use a few settings to help you.

To customize it, in Word 2010 go to File > Options > Proofing. Then look for “When correcting grammar and spelling in Word.” Check the box for “Check grammar with spelling.” Now set the Writing Style drop-down to Grammar & Style and click on Settings. There you’ll see what the grammar checker is checking. (Note: I hate the green squiggles, so I’ve unchecked “Mark grammar errors as you type.”)

Here’s the most important step: check only a few items you care about. (This means unchecking most of the boxes.) Now when you run a spell check, Word will also check grammar but will highlight only the items you checked. What’s more, for every grammar item it highlights, Word offers an explanation—though not all the explanations are helpful. Just click on “Explain.”

Some settings to consider.

Do you over-use the passive voice? Check the box for “passive sentences.” Word’s grammar checker is good at spotting passive voice, and although there are justifiable uses, many legal writers lapse into passive voice too often. For example, when I run a grammar check with “passive sentences” checked, I end up changing about half my passive sentences to active. That’s a worthwhile setting.

Haven’t mastered that versus which? Check the box for “relative clauses.” Word does a pretty good job of identifying that-which errors. By running a few tests, I surmised that it’s just looking for which without a preceding comma, but I wasn’t able to fool it into marking a correct use as incorrect. Naturally, it suggests adding a comma or switching to that, so you have to figure out what you mean. Still, it’s great practice if you haven’t mastered the difference.

Need help with possessives and plurals? Even if you know the difference between judges and judge’s, we all make unintended typos. Check the box and Word might save you some embarrassment.

Some settings you might want to avoid.

Prone to long sentences? Word offers only limited help. Check the box for “sentence length,” and Word will tell you when a sentence is 60 words or longer—a pretty high threshold and well beyond my own guideline of 45. In other words, I think a sentence of more than 45 words needs revision or division. But Word won’t prompt you to revise until 60. Not even at 59. I tried it.

Need help with fragments informal tone? Probably not. Although Word is good at finding sentence fragments, first person, and contractions, those are easy to spot and easy to avoid in formal writing. Leave those boxes unchecked. Word is also good at highlighting and or but at the beginning of a sentence and at spotting split infinitives. But most of us can spot those on our own or don’t consider them mistakes at all. Leave those boxes unchecked, too.

Commas? Word is terrible at commas; it can’t tell a series from a compound sentence from a parenthetical insertion. I leave the box for “punctuation” unchecked. And I’ve never been able to figure out what Word is really looking for with Wordiness. When I clicked on Explain, it told me to avoid “there is” and “there are.” Fair enough, but the highlighted sentence contained neither. Uncheck the box.


So it’s possible to make grammar checker a little less useless and even a little useful, but you have to take control. Don’t accept the default settings. Check or uncheck the settings as you prefer. You’ll probably keep just a few checked, so you won’t waste time with a tedious, full grammar check, but you’ll get a focused look at a few of your weaknesses.

Whatcha gonna do, 1 space or 2?

How many spaces after a period, one or two?

I’ve been asked to referee disputes on the subject, been urged to publicize the “right” answer, and been chastised for recommending the “wrong” answer. Lawyers tend to feel strongly about spaces, so I hesitate to weigh in. Let me start by acknowledging there are arguments on both sides.

If you put two spaces after periods, you have several arguments on your side. There’s the long tradition: that’s the way we’ve always done it (at least since the invention of the typewriter). You also have your own training to back you up: that’s the way we were taught (and still are, as I learned when my seventh grader took typing last year, or what is now called “keyboarding”). You might rely on widespread practice: that’s what everyone does (or at least the lawyers you know). Or you might say one space looks bad: it makes the document seem crowded.

If you put one space after periods, you have arguments on your side, too. One space is what the pros do: professionally published texts, like books, magazines, and newspapers mostly use one space after periods. For example, Austin Lawyer uses one space. You could point out that two-space practice is a vestige of the typewriter, with its mono-spaced fonts, and no one uses typewriters or mono-spaced fonts like Courier anymore (at least they shouldn’t). Or you might argue that one space is becoming the modern, standard practice (which it is, although it isn’t catching on quickly in law practice).

With arguments on both sides, I’ve found it difficult to persuade anyone on this issue. I tell my students that while in law school, choose a preference and be consistent with it. Then, in practice, conform to the expectations of your employer.

My own preference? I’m a one-space guy, and here’s why.

First, two-space practice really is a vestige of the typewriter, and I want my word-processed documents to look neat, modern, and professional. I don’t find a one-space document crowded; rather, I find a two-space document “gappy.” What are all those little cavities of white space?

Second, one-space practice really is the trend for professional writing. Search the topic on the Web if you doubt it. It’s just that lawyers are behind. The truth is that in professional writing, we are in the middle of a long, slow transition from two spaces to one space, and it really isn’t worth fighting it.

Third, those who know—the experts—prefer one space:

“One space is the custom of professional typographers and consensus view of typography authorities.” Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 42 (2010).

“Like most publishers, Chicago advises leaving a single character space, not two spaces, between sentences . . . .” Chicago Manual of Style 60 (15th ed. 2010).

“[T]he single space between sentences is enough to visually separate them, and two spaces creates a disturbing gap. . . . Yes, this is a difficult habit to break, but it must be done.” Robin Williams, The PC Is Not a Typewriter 13–14 (1992).

Fourth, clean-up is easy. As you know, there are plenty of places in abbreviations and citations where you want one space after a period, not two. Making sure you have one space there but two spaces after sentences is a headache, isn’t it? I use one space after sentences, so here’s all I need to do: as part of a final edit, run a search for two spaces and replace them with one. Done.

It’s still too early say two spaces is wrong for law practice since it’s so common in legal writing. But the battle for two spaces is being lost—one space at a time.

Pet Peeve: silly variation

Beached whale dies despite lifesaving efforts
By A. Journalist

A 30-foot whale that beached on the Central Coast has died.

Firefighters used their hoses to spray the mammal, which was reported alive but part-submerged on the beach at Central Coast on Tuesday.

A fire brigade spokesman said shortly after 9 a.m. that the whale had died despite efforts to save it. A cordon had been set up around the stricken cetacean to stop people getting too close and causing it stress.