You Made your Case

Preparatory Steps
Strengthen your command of written English

You would have no confidence in a carpenter whose tools were dull and rusty. Lawyers possess only one tool to convey their thoughts: language. They must acquire and hone the finest, most effective version of that tool available. They must love words and use them exactly.

Cultivate precise, grammatically accurate English; develop an appealing prose style; acquire a broad vocabulary. Naturally, these are not tasks you can undertake a month before your brief is due. They are lifelong projects, and you may as well begin them at once. You’ll find that it’s a pleasant set of tasks because the first and principal step is to read lots of good prose.

As you read, so will you write. If you read nothing but pulp novels and tabloid newspapers, you will write like them. Most lawyers have probably not descended to that level of recreational reading material-but alas, their everyday professional, nonrecreational reading is (literally speaking)even worse. Lawyers tend to be even bad writers because their profession condemns them to a diet of bad reading material. The very highest they go up the literary ladder, so to speak, is judicial opinions — which are widely read not, heaven knows, because they are well written (nor even because they are necessarily well reasoned) but because they are authoritative.

Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit puts the point bluntly: “The best way to become a good legal writer is to spend more time reading good prose. And legal prose ain’t that! So read good prose. And then when you come back and start writing legal documents, see if you can write your documents like a good article in The Atlantic, addressing a generalist audience. That’s how you do it: get your nose out of the lawbooks and go read some more.”

Meanwhile, you would do yourself an enormous favor by reading and consulting some books on English grammar and usage. That shouldn’t be a dreary task if you choose good resources. Try, at the outset, Patrica T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I (2d ed. 2004) – a delightful, highly informative guide to the pressure points of the English language. If you really want to hone your skills, read Norman Lewis’s classic book Better English(1956), which is full of interesting exercises with which you can test your skills. And, of course, the classic rulebook by William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (4th ed. 2000), is worth reading and rereading.

And then you’ll need good desk references on English usage. Many lawyers don’t even know that usage guides exist. But they do, and the best ones are wonderfully informative. Essentially, a usage guide is a compilation of literary rulings on common language questions: What’s the difference between consist of and consist in? (Consist of introduces material things, while consist in introduces ideas.) What’s the proper use of begging the question? (It means circular reasoning – assuming as true the very thing in dispute. It does not mean raising the further question or ignoring the question.) Should a comma appear before the and that introduces the final item in a series? (Preferably, yes.) Is it true that between refers to two things, and to more than two? (No: between expresses a looser type of aggregate relation.) Is it all right to begin a sentence with And or But? (Yes—not only is it all right, but often it’s highly desirable.) Is it all right to write alright? (No.) Is it proper to end a sentence with a preposition? (Yes, and it always has been.) And so on.

Our all –time favourite reference for English usage is H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2d ed. 1965), which gives classic answers to every major question of English usage. Get the second edition as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers – not the third edition (which in our view doesn’t measure up). The largest and most current guide to American usage is the book one of us wrote: Garner’s Modern American Usage (2d ed. 2003). It’s very much in the Fowlerian mode, and it illustrates and corrects hundreds of mistakes that have crept into English since Fowler’s day. Specifically for legal contexts, Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2d ed. 1995) answers thousands of questions about legal words and phrases, and their best uses.

Inputs Antonin Scalia & Bryan A Garner

Leave a Comment