Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Great Writers Know When to Break the Rules

Excellent legal writers (and writers generally) ensure that their documents adhere to basic rules of grammar and style. Indeed, if an attorney submits a document that contains grammatical or stylistic errors, it will undermine the attorney’s credibility and detract from the persuasive value of the attorney’s arguments.

However, in some circumstances, outstanding legal writers break the rules of grammar and style because doing so increases the persuasive value of a particular document. Below are some of the ways in which breaking the rules of grammar and style will likely enhance the quality of your document.

1.    You can end sentences with prepositions

As a general rule, sentences should not end with prepositions. However, in some contexts, adhering to this rule will result in awkward sentences. Consider the following example:

Who are you referring to?

Versus

About whom are you referring?

The first sentence ends with a preposition but certainly sounds more natural, which can be particularly effective where, for example, you seek to personalize your client.

Thus, don’t necessarily avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Instead, determine when, and under what circumstances, violating this rule will enhance the flow and readability of your document.

2.    You can write a one-sentence paragraph

Generally, a paragraph should be approximately three to five sentences. It should also include a topic sentence and never occupy an entire page.

In some situations, however, you should break this rule, particularly where you are emphasizing a strong fact or argument that is critical to your case. After all, it should come as no surprise that your audience may not read every word in your document. Thus, using a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize a relevant fact or argument can enhance your prose and the persuasiveness of your document.

3.    You can use the passive voice

The conventional rule is that you should write in the active voice. Sometimes, however, using the passive voice is effective, including where you want to de-emphasize facts that are unfavorable to your client. Consider the following example:

The rule was violated.

Versus

The Defendant violated the rule.

If you are representing the defendant, wouldn’t you rather use the first sentence to acknowledge that your client violated a rule?

Ultimately, in some circumstances, passive voice can be effective, although it should be used sparingly and mostly when you want to de-emphasize an unfavorable fact.

4.    You can use sentence fragments

A complete sentence must include a subject and a verb. Importantly, though, in limited circumstances, using sentence fragments can maximize the persuasiveness of your argument because it is an effective way to emphasize important facts. Consider the following example:

Upon arriving at the crime scene, it was immediately clear that the victim was murdered in a cruel and heinous manner. Bloodied. Dismembered. Fear still in her eyes.

The above example demonstrates how sentence fragments can paint a vivid picture of the underlying events and effectively emphasize important facts.

5.    You can start a sentence with “and” or “but” (or other conjunctions)

Generally, you should not begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”

But doing so can be quite effective in some circumstances. For example, beginning a sentence with “and” or “but” can increase the persuasive force of a sentence and enhance the flow of your narrative. Consider the following example.

The defendant claims that the plaintiff’s not entitled to damages. But the defendant signed the contract. And the defendant admits to doing so.

Versus

The defendant claims that the plaintiff’s not entitled to damages. However, the defendant signed the contract. Additionally, the defendant admits to doing so.

Which do you prefer? The first example both reads and flows better.

6.    You can split infinitives

Some writers – or English teachers – may cringe at the notion that you can split infinitives in your writing. But doing so often makes your writing sound and read better. Consider the following famous phrase:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Versus

To go boldly where no one has gone before.

The first example sounds and reads better.

7.    You can use “you” instead of “one”

Sometimes, it is effective to use “you” instead of “one.” Consider the following example:

If one prefers, one may appeal the committee’s decision within ten days.

Versus

You can appeal the committee’s decision within ten days.

The second example sounds better and thus results in more readable prose.

8.    You should frequently use profanity and vulgar language in your legal writing

I’m just kidding. Don’t ever do this!

Ultimately, grammar and style rules are vitally important and should be followed in many circumstances. However, rather than rigidly adhering to these rules, pay close attention to how your writing flows and sounds. Consider the context. Consider your audience. Consider what language maximizes the persuasiveness of your argument. And realize that, sometimes, breaking the rules is the key to excellent writing.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2020/01/great-writers-know-when-to-break-the-rules.html

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