Friday, September 19, 2008

A Question from a Blog Reader

We received this "grammar cop" question from a reader of our blog.  Click here to send your answers directly to her, or post them here as comments.  Here's the question:

I found your website researching the internet on grammar in legal writing.  My office is having a discussion and we just cannot figure out which way is the correct way to do this and I was hoping that you'd be willing to just help us out!

Our title of the document is:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's Counterclaim.

Seems clear enough, but when you add in the defendant's name, it becomes an issue for us.

Is the correct way (notice the placement of possession): 

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant, John Doe's, Counterclaim

or is it:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's, John Doe, Counterclaim


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I think I'd omit the commas setting off John Doe and put the apostrophe after Doe, i.e., "Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim."

Posted by: Jessica | Sep 20, 2008 6:40:39 AM

I would say it is neither of those two options. Instead, it should be "Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim." No commas setting off "John Doe's." I know this would be more useful if I could provide some *reason* for this, but alas, my opinion is based on "feel."

Posted by: TonyS | Sep 20, 2008 8:42:33 AM

I think the last example is correct (though maybe both words should be possessive?), but it's certainly awkward. I'd recommend substituting "Defendant John Doe" (using "Defendant" as an adjective modifying "John Doe") in place of "Defendant, John Doe," (where "John Doe" is an appositive that modifies "Defendant") -- because then it would be easier to form the possessive:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim

And if John Doe is the only defendant, then why not just omit "John Doe" and go with the original version?

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's Counterclaim

Posted by: David Sorkin | Sep 20, 2008 8:55:22 AM

The first choice could be done without the commas. Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim.

Posted by: John Doe | Sep 20, 2008 9:22:45 AM

The commas are not necessary. Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim is fine. The only argument I can see against this is the perceived definition of John Doe as the Defendant. I doubt anyone will perceive this. But if it is a concern, then just write John Doe's Counterclaim.

Posted by: Jane Doe | Sep 20, 2008 9:36:41 AM

In this phrase, the word "defendant" is operating as a title, and therefore the name of the party doesn't need to be set off by commas.

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim

Posted by: Katie | Sep 20, 2008 11:26:14 AM

Drop the commas. Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim. If you don't want him labeled as the Defendant, then just write John Doe's Counterclaim.

Posted by: Jane Dee | Sep 20, 2008 3:31:16 PM

I'm not sure grammar is a concern in a title of a document, especially in so short a title. Readability and clarity seem most important to me. I'd go with what reads well. Instead of using the name of the defendant as an appositive, why not:

"Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim."

True, this makes it look like there is more than one defendant. But if you have only one, what's wrong with leaving the name out entirely, as in your first option? Or, better yet, "Answer to Counterclaim."

I would only use names if you anticipate more parties later in the case.

Posted by: Greg May | Sep 20, 2008 5:28:15 PM

I would say it's the first option, but without the commas:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim

--- as in "My Cousin Vinny."

Posted by: Richard Neumann | Sep 21, 2008 7:15:29 AM

Do you have — or expect to have — more than just one defendant/counterclaimant or more than one plaintiff? If not, forget the name:

"Answer to Counterclaim."

As for naming the defendant/counterclaimant, I think you're creating a problem by setting off the appositive by commas. Without the commas (which are themselves grammatically incorrect as the appositive -- the name of the defendant -- is necessary to identify which defendant you are talking about), the correct title seems easy:

"Answer to Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim."

And since you're going to use the name anyway, do you really need the word "defendant"?

"Answer to John Doe's Counterclaim."

Just my $0.02.

Posted by: Greg May | Sep 22, 2008 12:44:31 AM

First, I presume you have (or anticipate) counterclaims from more than one defendant. Otherwise, why bother with names? But if you only have one party on each side of the case,there's no need for the identifier "John Doe," and I'd go with:

"Answer to Counterclaim."

If you must identify the defendant/counterclaimant by name in order to tell which defendant's counterclaim you are answering, then you should not set off the identifier "John Doe" with commas anyway (as a matter of grammar) and you are left with an easy solution:

"Answer the Defendant John Doe's Counterclaim."

I'd go with that if you want to include the name, even if you don't have to. In that case, setting off the identifier with commas would be correct, but if no confusion will result from not doing so, who cares?

Posted by: Greg May | Sep 22, 2008 10:18:56 AM

I'll mix it up a little: Plaintiff's Answer to Counterclaim of Defendant John Doe.

Posted by: MKane | Sep 23, 2008 11:13:25 PM

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