The following article, by Brenda Bernstein, was first published on MyLegal.com.
In a well-publicized case, a federal judge in Florida denied a lawyer’s motion (without prejudice, so he can re-file the motion) stating that it was “riddled with unprofessional grammatical and typographical errors that nearly render the entire motion incomprehensible.” Read the full article here: Judge Labels Lawyer’s Motion Nearly Incomprehensible, Marks Up Errors – ABA Journal
The judge highlighted the following problems, among others:
• Incorrect use of apostrophes.
• Typographical errors (using the word “this” instead of “thus” and the word “full” instead of “for”).
• Incorrect placement of periods and commas outside of quotation marks.
• Wrong word use (using the phrase the plaintiff “had attended on filing” this action, instead of saying the plaintiff had “intended” to file an action).
• One very long sentence.
Don’t let this happen to you!
If you write legal documents in any way, shape or form, it is absolutely essential to use correct spelling and grammar. In a famous case in England, a traffic ticket was thrown out because it was issued for illegal “stoping” instead of “stopping”; the alleged perpetrator had conducted no mining activities (“stoping” is a mining term) and so was found not guilty. I bet that police officer never issued another “stoping” ticket.
Past or Present?
One extremely common error I see amongst law students is using the word “lead” to mean the past tense of “lead.” This mistake could get you in trouble, since the past tense of “lead” is “led” (with no a). You could be writing in the wrong tense!
Example or Complete List?
Another place you can easily convey the wrong meaning is with “i.e.” and “e.g.” When you use “i.e.” it means “that is” or “in other words.” The proper way to follow “i.e.” is with a definition or complete list. For example: The defendant was charged with illegal stoping, i.e., mining activity. “E.g.” means “for example.” The proper way to follow “e.g.” is with a partial list of possibilities. For example: The motion was denied for bad grammar, e.g., typographical errors and wrong word use. If “i.e.” were used here, we would need to provide a complete list of the examples of bad grammar. (For a more thorough explanation of i.e. and e.g., read my post Common Grammatical Errors: Should You Use i.e. or e.g.?)
Law or Liberty?
Do you know the difference between a statute and a statue? Statutes are laws. Statues are sculptures. We have statutes of limitations and a Statue of Liberty. Don’t get these confused. You might want to remember the extra “t” for “time” when it’s a statute of limitations, or for “text” when it’s any written law. And you might think of following those statutes to a “T” (or 3)!
Proper Punctuation: Periods and Commas Inside Quotation Marks
To touch on one of the Florida judge’s beefs, periods and commas, in the United States, always go inside quotation marks, even when they are not part of the quotation, e.g., The defendant was arrested for “illegal stoping.” Although there are rare exceptions to this rule, they will probably not appear in legal writing (they are more likely to show up in technical writing). For a detailed discussion of this issue, see my blog post The Quandary of Quotation Marks (” “).
Proper Punctuation: Apostrophes
Many people incorrectly use apostrophes to make plural words. Don’t do it! Did you notice that the plural of apostrophe is NOT “apostrophe’s”? It is “apostrophes”! The plural words lawyers, judges, laws, statutes, DUIs and the 1990s do NOT take apostrophes.
Use an apostrophe and then an “s” to make a singular possessive. The lawyer’s brief was riddled with errors. The judge’s ruling was final.
Use an “s” and then an apostrophe to make a plural possessive. The five lawyers’ arguments diverged widely. All the county judges’ courtrooms contain the latest in audio-visual equipment.
Put your apostrophes in the right place – and avoid annoying the judge.
So Many Chances to Err!
There are multiple ways to make writing errors in legal documents, and I have only covered a few. My most important advice is to proofread and proofread again! Get a second pair of eyes to check your work. If you have grammar questions you want answered, I will answer them to the best of my ability in the comments section of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you…