Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, March 19, 2018

Supreme Grammar Splits

Last week, Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal reported on a recent study by Prof. Jill Barton of the University of Miami School of Law that looks at grammar preferences among Supreme Court Justices.  Specifically, Prof. Barton looked at how the Justices use fragments, possessives, and conjunctions. For her study, she examined "every signed opinion, concurrence, and dissent from the 2014 and 2015 terms."  

On fragments, Prof. Barton found the Court split 5-4 in favor of using fragments to spice up their opinions.  While the Justices didn't use fragments frequently, they often used them memorably (think "Pure applesauce.").

On possessives, the Court split again.  Prof. Barton found that a "slim majority" of five Justices left off the apostrophe "s" when making a singular word that ends in "s" possessive (think Congress' v. Congress's).  I have to say, I am with the minority on this point.

Finally, regarding conjunctions, all but one Justice used "So" to start sentences.  The Justices are more split on whether to use "since" when they meant "because."  Three Justices only used "since" to when discussing a temporal relationship. The other Justices, however, used "since" when they really wanted to show a causal relationship.

Prof. Barton concluded with noting that, "[t]his review of the Court’s writing style shows that the Justices lean toward writing in a more liberal, modern fashion."  Interestingly, no one Justice took the "liberal" writing approach on all four points Prof. Barton reviewed.  Five Justices were "liberal" on three points, and the rest split evenly.

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