The compound-modifier hyphen connects and clarifies

Grammar and Punctuation Comments Off

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

Grammar and Punctuation, Improvement Comments Off

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.

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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?

Grammar and Punctuation 5 Comments »

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

Grammar and Punctuation 8 Comments »

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.

When criticizing, be careful

Grammar and Punctuation No Comments »

Experienced lawyers sometimes criticize the writing of younger lawyers. It’s common. Being a writing teacher, I hear it a lot. But if you criticize the writing of others, especially younger lawyers, be careful. Make sure your own writing is up to high standards.

Today I read some writing by a lawyer I know, a lawyer who has criticized the writing of younger lawyers. What I read today had 10 mistakes in it—7 if you don’t count duplicates.

So be careful. This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about this.

Common writing problems

Grammar and Punctuation, Improvement 1 Comment »

I read a lot of legal writing, but I also read news, nonfiction books, and other professional writing. Some of the writing I read is not so great. Here are the most common writing problems I see across all forms of professional writing, not just legal writing:

  • Using bigger, more abstract, and more complex vocabulary than necessary.
  • Writing sentences that are too long.
  • Using noun forms where verb forms would be better.
  • Using passive voice unjustifiably.
  • Failing to catch small writing mistakes.
  • Using unwarranted variation.

One space after periods—link to blog post

Design, Grammar and Punctuation 2 Comments »

A good post that tries (probably in vain) to teach lawyers that the correct practice is one space.

Sources on grammar

Grammar and Punctuation 2 Comments »

I’ve been asked if I can recommend some sources on grammar for lawyers who want to improve their knowledge. Yes I can. I’ll start with websites:

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).

The Tongue Untied

Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) and her Quick-and-Dirty Tips

And some books:

  • Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Holt 2008).
  • Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (Riverhead Books 1996).
  • Margaret Schertzer, The Elements of Grammar (Macmillan 1986).

And a reference:

Do I have to teach grammar?

Grammar and Punctuation, Law Practice 2 Comments »

I learned a lot of grammar in middle school. We had to diagram sentences. I did it and did it well enough to get a good grade. We also learned about the parts of speech and other grammar matters in high school. I suppose most people do.

But when I became a law student, then a lawyer, and later a legal-writing teacher, I had to re-learn a lot of the grammar information I had supposedly learned in middle school and high school. I bet the same is true of many of my students. They learned grammar before they got to my legal-writing class, but they have to re-learn it now—meaning I have to teach it.

Why?

I have a theory.

1. When I learned grammar in middle school and high school, I was learning it just to spit it out on a test or fill it in on an exercise. It was just abstract information, necessary to get a good grade. Once I got the grade, I forgot it.

2. Forgot it? Really? How? You need grammar knowledge for the rest of your life—whenever you speak and on every writing assignment from high school through college.

Actually, no, you don’t.

3. If you are fairly intelligent (like my students here at Texas), you’ll make only a few mistakes on your papers right through the end of college, and you’ll never need to actually know what an independent clause is, what a dangling participle is, what coordinating conjunctions are, and so on.

4. Besides, my teachers in college were much more concerned about content and self expression than they were about fine points of grammar. They corrected only the most glaring mistakes I made, and I didn’t make many. Again, I assert that for fairly intelligent people like my students today, it’s possible to write high school and college essays and get good grades without a detailed knowledge of English grammar.

5. But law school is a bit different, and law practice is very different. For most lawyers, and this was definitely true for me, law practice requires more writing than anything before. For me, law practice easily required 10 times more writing than I’d ever done before.

I was doing a lot more writing, and naturally I had lots more opportunities to make writing mistakes.

6. And once you’re in law school and in law practice, you’re writing on subject matter that is more complex than anything you’ve written about before—so your writing naturally suffers because your brain is struggling to master the content.

My writing had more mistakes than ever beforemistakes I almost never made before.

7. Finally, in law school and law practice, your writing is subject to much more scrutiny than ever before. Accuracy, precision, correctness, and form matter a lot more than before.

My writing was scrutinized at a level I was unaccustomed to.

7. So I needed to know what a conjunctive adverb was. I needed to know the difference between a dependent clause and a phrase. I had to master a set of comma rules. I had to know how to use a semicolon. And so on. All the abstract, “useless” grammar stuff now became relevant. I had to re-learn it.

How did all this look to my legal writing teacher or the lawyers I worked for?

“Young people these days just don’t know grammar.”

“I’m surprised someone who went to Cornell would make mistakes like that.”

“We’re dealing with a generation of semi-literate lawyers.”

So yes, I do have to teach or re-teach grammar, and I’m not going to be cynical about it.

Run-on sentences

Grammar and Punctuation, Improvement 3 Comments »

Do you perpetrate run-on sentences?

Probably not. And it’s not a crime. But perpetrating a run-on sentence sends a message about you: You’re less than fully literate or you don’t proofread well. In this post I’ll define terms, highlight types of run-ons, and offer suggestions for fixing them.

A run-on sentence isn’t just any long or awkward sentence. A run-on sentence results from improperly joining independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that could be a grammatical sentence by itself. For example, these are both independent clauses:

  • I understand there must be rules.
  • Many forms of writing have rules.

A true run-on sentence joins independent clauses without punctuation or a conjunction:

  • I understand there must be rules many forms of writing have rules.

I almost never see this in legal writing.

But it’s also incorrect to join two independent clauses with only a comma. When you do that, you create a type of run-on sentence called a comma splice:

  • I understand there must be rules, many forms of writing have rules.

I do see comma splices in legal writing, but rarely. To properly join two independent clauses, you could use a semicolon, a comma with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so), or a period (creating two sentences).

  • I understand there must be rules; many forms of writing have rules.
  • I understand there must be rules, and many forms of writing have rules.
  • I understand there must be rules. Many forms of writing have rules.

There’s another type of run-on sentence. It results when you join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb and a comma. For example, this is a run-on sentence:

  • Itemizing and attaching bills, therefore, constitutes prima facie evidence that medical charges were necessary and reasonable, however, there is still an issue of material fact to be considered.

The text contains two independent clauses:

  • Itemizing and attaching bills, therefore, constitutes prima facie evidence that medical charges were necessary and reasonable.
  • There is still an issue of material fact to be considered.

But they have been improperly joined—or spliced—with a comma and a conjunctive adverb: however. I do see this in legal writing—the example is from a brief filed in federal court—but it is, in fact, a run-on sentence and is improper in standard English.

As tempting as it may be, don’t treat conjunctive adverbs like coordinating conjunctions. If it helps, think of coordinating conjunctions as mere connectors and conjunctive adverbs as creators of transitions. In fact, they are often called “transition words.” Here’s a partial list of conjunctive adverbs:

accordingly

certainly

consequently

finally

furthermore

hence

however

indeed

likewise

meanwhile

moreover

namely

nevertheless

nonetheless

similarly

specifically

still

subsequently

therefore

thus

To fix the “conjunctive adverb” run-on sentence, you have several options:

Use a semicolon:

  • . . . charges were necessary and reasonable; however, there is still an issue . . .

Use a coordinating conjunction instead:

  • . . . charges were necessary and reasonable, but there is still an issue . . .

Make two sentences:

  • . . . charges were necessary and reasonable. However, there is still an issue . . .

(Yes, you can begin a sentence with however, despite Strunk & White.)

By the way, there’s a second conjunctive adverb in the original sentence, and it’s set off with commas and yet is correct:

  • Itemizing and attaching bills, therefore, constitutes prima facie . . .

Using the conjunctive adverb in this way is correct because it doesn’t join two independent clauses. In short, “Itemizing and attaching bills” could not be a sentence by itself.

Learn to spot and fix run-on sentences, both the basic comma splice and the equally improper “conjunctive adverb” type.


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