SLU Writing Corner: Grammatically Challenged
by Kelly Mulholland and Laura Schulz, Assistant Professors of Legal Writing, Saint Louis University School of Law, St. Louis
Grammar has not always been my strength, but I know it is something that impacts my credibility. It has been so long since I did all of that diagramming in grade school with Mrs. Jones. Do you have any tips to help sharpen my skills?
Dear Grammatically Challenged,
You are correct in noting that grammar impacts credibility. Everyone enters the law practice with a different level of ability and comfort in this area, and it can be like an Achilles heel for many. Here are some common trouble spots. If you work on these, you will be on your way to polishing your writing.
First, make sure to use possessives correctly. For example, add an apostrophe “s” to make a singular noun possessive (and according to most conventional grammar books, this is true even if the word ends in “s”). Just add an apostrophe when a plural word ends in “s,” but add an apostrophe “s” when a plural word does not end in “s.”
Second, make sure to choose the correct pronoun. Remember to use “he/him” or “she/her” when the sentence refers to an individual person. Moreover, a corporation is an “it” not a “their.” In addition, a court is an “it” not a “they,” since the word “court” is viewed as a collective noun and is treated as a singular word. Many writers get that wrong.
Third, watch out for those commas. Some people tend to overuse them; others tend to underuse them. One common mistake writers make is failing to include a comma to separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction or connector word like “and” or “but.” Ask yourself the following: Could the information before the connector be its own full sentence? Could the information after the connector be its own full sentence? Include a comma before the connector if you answer both questions with yes. Also try reading your work product out loud and pay attention to where you naturally pause when speaking. Does a comma interrupt the flow of the sentence? Did you pause at a place where you don’t have a comma? This often can help you identify comma issues.
One of the most important tips is to leave enough time in the writing process to make grammatical edits. You inevitably will not put as much time into this as necessary if you do not manage your deadlines. Finally, remember that you likely will not remember all of the rules! You probably had to buy a grammar or usage guide for your legal research and writing class. Dig it out and bring it with you to work. If you don’t have a guide, get one. It should be something you consult regularly, just like you would with rules of procedure. When you don’t know the answer, be curious and look it up. Over time, the rules will become second nature to you and will give you an edge in your documents and briefs.
We applaud you for being proactive in dealing with this issue, and we wish you luck.