I’m Tired of the Grammar Nazis

Q My Legal Research and Writing class is driving me insane. I understand why it is important to get citations exactly right. I do not understand why I have to use em dashes (which I’d never even heard of until last week) instead of parentheses or why my ellipses need to include extra spaces between the periods. I’m being told that my writing structure and legal analysis are generally quite good, but I’m being marked down for minute differences in word choice and other things that make no sense to me. Please tell me that there is actually a point to all of this. It has been suggested in class that if we don’t have near-perfect memos to use as writing samples, we’ll find it hard to get jobs this summer. What’s a 1L to do? Just how important is the em dash anyway?

AThere is no point to it, sorry, other than to do like most monkeys and swing from the branches and eat the bananas they feed you. I think they call it the Blue Book but, honestly, I haven’t looked at a Blue Book in years. And I haven’t suffered for it, nor lost a motion on account of it, fucked up a case, or gone hungry. But that doesn’t stop the legal writing grammar Nazis, law review editors, and big firm grammar pornographers from believing that they are holding off barbarians at the gates by enforcing proper spacing between periods in an ellipsis. Imagine the conversation at the hiring end:

KIRKLAND:  What do you think of Peterson?
ELLIS:     Good grades, went to Michigan, has decent experience.
KIRKLAND:  But she had the wrong spacing in an ellipsis.
ELLIS:     Yeah, I saw that. I think she italicized a period, too.
KIRKLAND:  Makes you wonder what they're teaching in law school
           these days.
ELLIS:     Don't get me started, bub. I say reject.
KIRKLAND:  Yeah, reject. Send the standard letter. Actually,
           she doesn't deserve a letter. Fucking retard.



That said, and having been a law school adjunct as well as a frequent editor, I have two pieces of advice that may help: 1) stop using the em dash; and 2) stop using ellipses except for indicating you have omitted text in a quotation. Like Asian Carp and other invasive species, these two trendy tricks of the punctuation trade will take over your writing, and you’ll abuse them for all the wrong reasons. To indicate a slight pause, to be clever, to call unnecessary attention to a phrase, to stop the reader in her tracks. Use a fucking period when you need a period. Or start a new sentence. So, avoid or use sparingly and you’ll improve your writing. Same goes for parentheses. Avoid, unless you want your writing to seem like you are constantly talking out of the side of your mouth.

So, sure, as a 1L it’s optimal to learn the rules and impress your teachers and potential employers with the flawless execution of an ellipsis. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over it or do anything more than note the need to correct it when it’s called to your attention and try to do the right thing next time. Understand the rules enough so that, when you break them, you understand the why and can make an informed choice next time or conclude that you don’t care.

One thing, though, stands out in your otherwise spot-on question. You mention being judged on “word choice.” Whoever is nailing you for poor word choice is right. It’s one thing to act like a proper monkey and get your spaces in an ellipsis all cuddly and correct. But it’s another if you’re saying “discreet” when you mean “discrete.” Proper word choice is a fundamental tool of our trade, so make sure you get at least that right.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirbrik28/3425960901/)

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

24 Comments

  1. Ellen

    October 7, 2011 at 9:29 am

    It is VERY important when you go to 1L to know what you are doing. Once you get out, it is the only way to distinguish yourself.

    A lot of lawyers down-play cite checking, but the managing partner of my firm loves that I know how to Shepardize cases and can cite them for him.

  2. Sam Glover

    October 7, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I think you meant “spot-on question” in the first sentence of your last paragraph. Not that I notice such things.

  3. Sam Glover

    October 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Also, the question was actually about syntax and punctuation, apparently, not grammar. Just saying.

    Word nerd out.

    • Ex-Bitter

      October 7, 2011 at 10:06 am

      It’s now been suggested to me that we change the headline to “I’m Concerned About Syntax and Punctuation Pedants”

      • Sam Glover

        October 7, 2011 at 10:17 am

        Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  4. JJ

    October 7, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I agree that some people get carried away, but consider this…

    WSJ Bankruptcy Beat Blog

    • Ex-Bitter

      October 7, 2011 at 11:14 am

      Agreed, and good story. Commas are one thing, especially the Oxford Comma or, my favorite, the new “DeVry Comma.” Commas are like wood screws for putting sentences or clauses together. Good. Basic.

      But spacing between periods in an ellipsis? Or using an em dash instead of an en dash or parentheses? They’re like cotter pins, the kind that you end up using a hammer to get out later or, worse, slicing your finger open because you don’t know what the hell else to do to get it out.

  5. Gyi Tsakalakis

    October 7, 2011 at 10:13 am

    I’m tired of the grammar Nazis too. Unfortunately, Google might be the next grammar Nazi taking grammatical and spelling errors into account in their algo. Which i couldn’t disagree with more. Language and writing are intended to carry meaning. If the Declaration of Independence was written in a way that wasn’t grammatically sound, yet carried the same meaning, would it be of less value than a grammatically correct version?

    • Sam Glover

      October 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

      Yes.

      • Andy Mergendahl

        October 7, 2011 at 11:29 am

        But it would have been more “lawyerly.”

  6. Rance Stoddard

    October 7, 2011 at 10:55 am

    My boss was a law review editor AND an English major. Drives me fucking nuts.

  7. Graham Martin

    October 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

    I don’t mean to be another Sam Glover, but I think the value in proper punctuation is quite evident: it indicates the meaning and inflection of the words you have chosen. Parenthetical statements tend to be read as a bit more under your breath (or at least I think so), whereas statements offset by em dashes—which are also HIGHLY offset visually—tend to be emphasized. Those are significantly different levels of importance, and they are based solely on the choice of punctuation.

    Whether I’m right or not, I like to assume that my audience is reading the punctuation properly, so I need to get it right for the precise meaning to be properly communicated.

    • Sam Glover

      October 7, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Those were en dashes. (In WordPress, it takes three hyphens to indicate an em dash.)

      • Graham Martin

        October 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm

        Yeah—my bad. I saw that after I posted it, but can’t edit the blasted comment.

  8. paean

    October 7, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I agree with your sentiment but if you are going to argue against nitpicky grammar rules you should take care to only do so with stellar writing. I almost can’t even tell what you’re talking about in the third paragraph.

    And I would not characterize the difference between “discrete” and “discreet” as being minute.

    • Sam Glover

      October 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      I love grammar/punctuation/etc. comment threads. Calling out the errors of others is like playing chicken, because eventually I will screw up, too.

    • Alan T.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm

      It’s really about context. I don’t expect error-free stellar writing in a blog post. Nice when you get it, but otherwise errors are just material for trolls. And I think the point is about the nitpicky stuff like spaces between periods in an ellipsis and proper use of an em dash.

      I think Ex-Bitter is right on. You can care so much about things that really won’t make a whole lot of difference. Unless you want to hang out with people who do think it makes a whole lot of difference.

  9. Guano Dubango

    October 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Good grammar attracts good women. Bad teeth drives them away.

    These are the credos I have been operating on since my arrival here in 1995.

    Live them. Learn them. I was told.

  10. Susan Gainen

    October 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    While I am delighted that you all can hack away at one another about em and en dashes, I think that the question of word choice is equally important.

    If (when) you are someone’s lawyer, your word choice can mean the difference a good result and disaster. When lawyers abandon precision and care for the true meanings of the words that they use, their clients lives and property are at risk. If you imagine that you know the correct meaning of every word that you use, you are probably delusional. Check and double check. Your clients will be happy and your malpractice carrier will smile down upon you.

  11. Quadoz

    October 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I want to beat all of you down with a trout. I have always hated Grammar Nazis.

    Quadoz,
    City Cop by Midnight, Rookie Lawyer by Day

  12. evil lawyer

    October 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Good grammar? Is that why I see all the hot women with douche losers? Grow up Guano.

  13. Tired 1L

    October 8, 2011 at 8:44 am

    I am the person who submitted this question and I just want to thank you for all the responses. Just to clarify, by word choice I don’t mean I’m mixing up homophones. It’s hard to give an example without using specifics that would identify me, but I’ll try. For example, in part of a sentence I said “given his awareness of a business with the same name.” My wording was very similar to the wording in the fact pattern, but I was told to change it to “given that there is a business with the same name.” I agree that the corrected wording reads better in this example, but I felt like other corrections didn’t have quite the same meaning as what I wanted to convey. Since that part of my question wasn’t clear enough to avoid this confusion, I seem to have proven Ex-Bitter’s point anyway. Oops!

  14. Jen

    October 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I was a legal writing TA, and a paralegal, and now an attorney. There is one very important thing you can learn from all this persnickety nonsense, and that is that you are writing for a particular person. In this case, it’s a legal writing instructor, some day it might be a difficult partner, or particular judge. If the legal writing instructor wants spaces in between the ellipses (which I had never heard of before this post) then that’s what you give him/her. Some day you might find someone who wants their table of contents made using tabs and not an invisible table (because he can tell, just by looking at it, even though no other human being can… yes, that happened to me, and he ended up needing 12 versions of it. No joke). Sometimes your lesson is not about what they are teaching, but about who is teaching you.

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