Category Archives: Persuasion

Introducing quotations

Inviting readers to read, not skip, your quotations

Legal writers often need to use quotations in persuasive documents. Quoting a reliable source adds credibility to your assertions and can relieve the reader of independently checking a source. In this column I’ll discuss a technique for formally introducing quotations that can enhance persuasive force and invite readers to read the quotation—not skip it.

But first, two caveats: (1) Legal writing requires scrupulous honesty and care in quoting; misquoting a source, intentionally or accidentally, harms your credibility. (2) Legal writers should avoid over-quoting; use quotations for crucial legal language or to clinch a key point. Otherwise, paraphrase.

And this post isn’t about incorporating a quotation into your own textual sentence, like these examples:

  • The relevant statute states, “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]
  • The relevant statute provides that “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, I’ll address a formal lead-in to a quotation.

A common and traditional way to introduce a quotation is to use a lead-in statement and a colon, like these:

  • The court stated as follows:
  • The statute provides the following:
  • The hearing officer made the following ruling:

These forms are adequate but average. In their place, I recommend introducing the quotation with what we might call an informative or persuasive lead-in by asserting a point the quotation will prove. So don’t write this:

  • The relevant statute provides authorization as follows: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, introduce the quotation by asserting a point the quotation will clinch, like this:

  • The Tax Code affirms Granger’s right to sue for a refund: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

The technique works for block quotations, too. We all know that readers often skip block quotations. According to Mark Hermann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, “you must trick the judge into learning the content of the block quotation.”[1] He recommends summarizing the quotation’s substance in the lead-in sentence. And Bryan Garner, in The Winning Brief, offers similar advice: “For every block quotation, supply an informative, eye-catching lead-in.”[2]

So instead of this average lead-in:

  • The State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, and the Superintendent thus acted under authority of the Education Code, which states as follows:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

Try this:

  • Once the State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, the Education Code granted the Superintendent the right to make personnel decisions for the vacant principal positions:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

The lead-in asserts a point and, to some degree, summarizes the quotation to follow. With this technique, according to Herrmann and Garner, you’ll get two payoffs. First, readers might read the block: the assertive tone of the lead-in invites them to read the quotation to see if you’re right. Second, even if readers skip the block, they still get the key content.

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[1] Mark Herrmann, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law 8 (2006).

[2] Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 501 (3d ed. 2014).

All 12 Tips for Concision

Since July 2015 I’ve been sporadically posting a series of tips for concision in legal writing. I suggested a total twelve, and links to all of them are collected here:

1. Don’t fear possessives.

2. Remove redundancy.

3. Diminish sesquipedalian vocabulary. (Reduce big words.)

4. Cut throat-clearing phrases.

5. Eliminate excessive prepositions.

6. Deflate compound prepositions.

7. Omit needless details.

8. Edit for wordiness.

9. Make independent clauses participial phrases.

10. Use pro-verbs or elide verbs.

11. Assess passive voice.

12. Revise unnecessary nominalizations.

Mastering the dash, Part 2

In Part 1, I said the dash follows few rules and is a flexible mark with many uses. With all those possibilities, how do you decide when to use a dash? Consider two key writing goals: breaks and emphasis.

According to June Casagrande in The Best Punctuation Book, Period, you can use the dash to indicate “breaks in a sentence” or “a change of sentence structure or thought.”[1] The dash signals a new direction, often abruptly, and might replace a heavier transition word:

  • Kaye will sell the yacht. However, the buyer must have financing within 30 days.
  • Kaye will sell the yacht—if the buyer has financing within 30 days.

The period signals a full stop. Here’s a new idea. The semicolon signals a pause; here’s a related idea. The dash signals a break—here’s something important. We saw this in an earlier example:

  • Chen does not object to the fee. She asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee; she asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee—she asks that it not be disclosed.

Dashes emphasize. In The Redbook, Bryan Garner calls the dash “a forceful and conspicuous punctuation mark.”[2] In the earlier example about Calhoun’s statement, the paired parentheses downplay the inserted clause, the paired commas are neutral, but the paired dashes emphasize it.

  • Calhoun’s statement, which was false, blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement (which was false) blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement—which was false—blamed the problem on Scoville.

Writers can also use a single dash to point, and that pointing is emphatic. In the following example, the second version highlights the lack of permission, and it’s all in the dash:

  • Jeffrey deleted the paragraph without checking with his co-author.
  • Jeffrey deleted the paragraph—without checking with his co-author.

As for the myth—I’ve met lawyers and teachers who frown on the dash, saying it’s too informal for legal writing. Some legal-writing teachers won’t allow their students to use it. I disagree. The dash is entirely appropriate for legal writing, especially persuasive legal writing. Yes, overuse might be a problem, so exercise judgment, but you should add the dash to your writing tool kit.

[1] June Casagrande, The Best Punctuation Book, Period 118, 119 (2014).

[2] Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 1.51 (3d ed. 2013).

Mastering the dash, Part 1

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Let’s get to know the dash. It’s good for breaks and pauses, emphasis and force. In Part 1 I’ll explain how to create the right dash and go over some rules. In Part 2 I’ll discuss several good uses and try to dispel a myth.

The dash discussed here is the em dash. It’s a long, horizontal punctuation mark—like these—and should be distinguished from the en dash – like these – a shorter mark with different uses. On a typewriter, you create a dash by typing two hyphens with spaces on either side. Are you using a typewriter? Then don’t use two hyphens. “Use real dashes,” says Matthew Butterick in Typography for Lawyers.

To get the em dash in Word, type two hyphens, leaving no space on either side. Word should automatically convert that into an em dash. If you put a space before and after the hyphens, Word will convert that into an en dash, which is the wrong mark. (Yet so many writers use spaces that the shorter en dash is ubiquitous despite being technically wrong.)

You can also insert an em dash directly with the Insert Symbols function or with keystrokes: alt + 0151. On a Mac, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus key. Note that copying and pasting sometimes converts an em dash to a hyphen—a glitch you’ll want to catch when you proofread.

Rules? The dash obeys few rules. It’s flexible. You can use it in place of commas, colons, parentheses, periods, and semicolons.

In place of a comma:

  • It was the seller who balked, not the buyer.
  • It was the seller who balked—not the buyer.

In place of a colon:

  • The courts assess three factors: purpose, type, and effect.
  • The courts assess three factors—purpose, type, and effect.

A pair of dashes in place of a pair of commas or parentheses:

  • Calhoun’s statement, which was false, blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement (which was false) blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement—which was false—blamed the problem on Scoville.

The dash can even replace a period or semicolon, separating independent clauses:

  • Chen does not object to the fee. She asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee; she asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee—she asks that it not be disclosed.

With all these possibilities, how do you decide when to use a dash?

That’s Part 2.

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Intensifiers Part 3: You’re Literally Killing Me

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Part 3 of 3.

As legal writers, we might be tempted to use intensifiers to bolster our points—to persuade. These days, legal writers might even be tempted to use the word literally. I’ve got some bad news about literally, but I’ve got good news, too. It will make you so happy you’ll literally be walking on air.

Linguists and others who study language agree: In speech, the word literally is becoming an all-purpose intensifier like highly, clearly, and extremely. That’s the bad news, and there’s nothing much we can do about it. Language changes, and sometimes it changes for the worse. (Did you know that long ago, the frozen dessert was called iced cream? Incorrect pronunciation and spelling over time changed it to ice cream. It’s happening with iced tea, right?)

That’s why we hear nonsensical statements like these:

  • he was literally glowing
  • she was literally rolling in dough
  • my head literally exploded

But in legal writing, which values precision, we shouldn’t follow this trend. So even if you’re willing to say, in casual conversation, “My boss is so impatient, I’m literally walking a tightrope,” please don’t use this trendy sense of literally in legal writing. “The delays were such that the buyers were literally banging their heads against a wall.”

Now the good news. I did a search for the word literally in appellate briefs filed in the Austin Court of Appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Texas Supreme Court. I got nearly 2000 hits, and I skimmed dozens of them. I couldn’t find any genuinely erroneous uses of literally. There were some close calls, but overwhelmingly, brief writers use literally when they mean . . . literally. Hurray for these:

  • The court concluded that, literally applied, the ordinance’s definition of “nonconforming use” is at odds with the ordinary meaning of that term.
  • Aerofile denied that Hanson’s attempted forfeiture was effective because Hanson failed to strictly and literally comply with the notice provision.
  • The statute can be read both literally and rationally.

Let’s keep it that way.