The Basics of Legal Writing

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The Basics of Legal Writing

Post by Admin on Wed Jul 15, 2015 1:36 pm

Chapter Overview

The goal of legal writing is to communicate. Although there are many forms of legal writing (letters, memos, and court briefs), all must comply with standard rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation so that your final product effectively communicates to its intended audience. This chapter reviews these basics of writing so that you omit any flaws in your communication that distract your reader from your message and make the reader doubt your abilities and reflect on your carelessness.

A. Grammar

1. Introduction

Rules of grammar are used so that we can communicate clearly. Following are some of the most common grammatical errors made by beginning and even experienced writers.

2. Subject-Verb Agreement

A verb must agree in number with the subject of a sentence. That is, if the subject of a sentence is singular, the verb must also be singular. Similarly, if the subject of a sentence is plural, the verb must also be plural. Most problems in subject-verb agreement occur when a subject is used that has more than one word, when the subject is an indefinite pronoun or collective noun, or when several words or a prepositional phrase intervene between the subject and the verb.

3. Run-on Sentences

A run-on sentence combines two sentences into one. Run-on sentences can usually be corrected by inserting the proper punctuation or by dividing the run-on into two separate sentences.

4. Modifiers

The incorrect placement of a modifier (a word that limits, describes, or qualifies another word or group of words) causes ambiguity. Place modifiers next to or as close as possible to the words they modify. For example, the sentence "Rita agreed only to lend her sister money" is capable of two interpretations. Does it mean that Rita agreed to lend her sister money and no other item? Or does it mean Rita will lend her sister money and will not lend money to anyone else? It may be necessary to add words to a sentence with a modifier in order to achieve clarity. Either of the following two sentences will reduce ambiguity:

Rita agreed to lend her sister only money and nothing else.
Rita agreed to lend money only to her sister and not to anyone else.


Modifiers such as "almost," "ultimately," "frequently," "immediately," "eventually," "finally," and "only" are notorious causes of ambiguity. Exercise caution in using these words.

5. Split Infinitives

An infinitive is the word "to" with a verb, as in to run or to argue. An infinitive is said to be "split" when a word (usually an adverb) is inserted between the word to and the verb, as in to quickly run or to persuasively argue.
Nearly all writing experts now recognize that there is no formal rule against splitting an infinitive, and split infinitives are commonly seen in non-legal writing, including newspaper articles; however, legal readers tend to be conservative and may be annoyed or distracted by a split infinitive. Because most split infinitives are so easily corrected (by merely moving the adverb that causes the "split" after the infinitive), correct them when you can, and avoid splitting and infinitive unless you want to place emphasis on the adverb. Thus, rather than writing "The partner asked me to quickly review the transcript," write "The partner asked me to review the transcript quickly."

6. Dangling Participles

A present participle is a verb ending in -ing, as in arguing or entering. It is said to "dangle" when it does not modify the subject of a sentence. Also called a dangling modifier, this grammar problem most often occurs when a sentence starts with a word ending in -ing, as in Driving to the meeting, my cell phone rang. This sentence is incorrect because it lacks an identification of the subject and implies that the cell phone was driving to the meeting. To remedy a dangling modifier, either identify the actor immediately after the introductory modifier, or reword the modifying phrase so that it identifies the actor, as in As I was driving to the meeting, my cell phone rang.

7. Pronouns

a. Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns (I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them) change forms depending on whether they function as the subject of a sentence or the object of the sentence. When the pronoun functions as or replaces the subject of a sentence, use "I," "he," "she," "we," or "they."

As an aid to determining which form of pronoun to use, omit or cover up the noun and the word "and" accompanying the pronoun, and this will provide a clue as to which pronoun to use. For example, in the sentence "You must give John and I/me directions," omit "John and" so the sentence reads "You must give _____ directions." This reading makes it clear the correct pronoun is "me."

b. Using the Pronouns That, Which, and It

The relative pronouns include "that" and "which." "That" is used in a restrictive clauses (a clause that is essential to the meaning of a sentence) while "which" is used in a non-restrictive clause (a clause that merely adds an idea to a sentence that would be complete without the clause). For example, in the sentence "The books that were outside got wet," the word that tells which particular books got wet (namely, the ones outside). Presumably, there are other books that were not outside, and those are fine. On the other hand, review the sentence "The books, which were outside, got wet." This sentence tells us that all of the books were outside, and they all got wet. Many writers have difficulty determining whether to start a clause with "that" or "which."
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