New Federal Word Limits – How WordRake Can Help

The New York Times recently published an article about a new limit of 13,000 words for all briefs filed with federal appellate courts. Lawyers are not happy. “There are cases where the facts are complicated,” complained one, “and where areas of the law are complicated.” In a radio interview, the Ninth Circuit’s Judge Alex Kozinski countered, “The more complex the case, the more the lawyers should strive to make the explanation simple and easy to understand.” Lawyers in over 7000 law firms  know WordRake helps.

42 Million Words

Judge Kozinski estimated that the “average case has three briefs, so that’s close to 40,000 words in every case, and we get 35-40 of those cases a month.” My math tells me that that comes to almost 20,000,000 words a year. (The article estimated 42,000,000.) The average hardback book published in New York runs about 100,000 words, so the average federal appeals judge has to read at least 200 “books” a year.

But the “books” are not written by professional writers edited exhaustively by professional editors. They’re written by harried lawyers with myriad cases and clients demanding their time. Judge Kozinski observed that too many lawyers “leave the writing of the brief till the last minute . . . . and don’t leave themselves time to go back and cut and polish and winnow the arguments.” Even if that describes you, in a few minutes—at the last minute—WordRake can help you “cut and polish.

Federal Courts Use WordRake

Although many individual federal and state judges and clerks use WordRake to help them draft memoranda, orders, and opinions, whole federal courts in Washington and Florida have integrated the WordRake editing software. Recently, one of the three biggest law firms in the world bought 2,500 WordRake licenses. Big firms and federal courts don’t commit to software unless they know it’s a sound investment.

Not Just the Federal Courts

The Times article addresses the new word limit only in federal appellate courts, but local and trial courts all over the country are imposing similar restrictions. Last month, the King County Superior Court (trial courts in Seattle) posted a new rule, that pleadings and motions would now have a word limit instead of a page limit. 

“I Can Heartily Recommend WordRake”

In the list serve discussion that followed, a colleague wrote:

“I can heartily recommend WordRake, a program that is not very expensive, that automates a good bit of the editing for you. It particularly pares down flabby text (the very kind my first drafts normally have in great abundance).”


WordRake will not make your case less complex; it will help you make your brief more clear and succinct. A sample real-time edit from WordRake.

The effect of the amendment was to increase The amendment increased, by over $400,000, the amount of amusement tax that Sunnyvale would need to must collect and remit to the Borough on an annual basis annually.

A Tip (I’ve Taught to Litigators and Appellate Lawyers for 28 Years)

Submit a Shorter Brief

Judges can lift a brief and tell you exactly its number of pages. Purposely write your brief to come in about 20% under that weight. If it feels lighter than the limit, the judge turns to page one, feeling good about the lawyer who wrote it. Judge Kozinski: “If it’s important, and you want to win, the best way to do it is to write a short brief.”

More Tips (A Bonus Just for Sticking with Me This Long)

Never Confuse a Fact with a Relevant Fact  – facts suggest issues; when we include irrelevant facts, we suggest irrelevant issues; that confuses judges.

Never include a Name, a Date, or a Number Unless It’s Important  – names, dates, and numbers carry the aura of importance, so judges try to keep track of them; if they’re not important, judges still try to keep track of them, because they don’t know; that also confuses them.

A Collaboration

WordRake starts your editing process. It will spot dull and unnecessary words you are too close to notice, too tired to see,  or don’t know to look for. It will give you an accurate edit 95% of the time. But even if it changes the meaning—we’re dealing with almost 200,000 words and their permutations—you will often see its intent and make the edit yourself. You and WordRake will work well together.


WordRake will not write the brief for you. But it will “rake” what you have written and quickly show you ways to make it clearer and more succinct. And help you meet word limits.

The American Academy of Appellate Lawyers urges courts to “post on their court web sites short videos outlining how to write a decent brief.” But you can get a free seven-day trial at and have the WordRake editing software show you how to find the dull and unnecessary words in that brief. Right this minute.

We Talk on the Road We Argue the Necessity of Periods When We Come to a Stop We Must Let Our Readers Know Jack Wants Mine

I’m out here in the desert, cocking my thumb with my Beat buddy Jack. We’ve been on the road counting Nash Ramblers to entertain ourselves ever since we left Vegas, seven so far, but we’ve seen not one car for the past hour. The sun blisters the backs of our necks, and our mood has soured until we’re screaming at each other. As you might guess, it’s about periods. Jack has run out, and he wants mine.



An independent clause forms a complete thought with a subject and a verb. It can stand alone as a sentence. When we put two or more independent clauses into the same sentence, we must separate them to avoid a run-on sentence. We do this three ways:


1) a period to separate different thoughts;


I placed my hand on her arm, it was all I could do to restrain myself.


I placed my hand on her arm. It was all I could do to restrain myself.


2) a semicolon to separate closely related thoughts;


Keep up the info it helps me be a better writer.


Keep up the info; it helps me be a better writer.


3) a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction to join thoughts.


Click the email button we will be happy to confirm your schedule.


Click the email button, and we will be happy to confirm your schedule.


Even Jack Kerouac in the stream-of-consciousness, unpaginated, unparagraphed ON THE ROAD The Original Scroll carefully avoided run-on sentences.


He’s kicking up dust and spitting out “Tarnation!” and “Son of a cactus!” because reviewers accuse him of writing “run-on sentence images.” “I never write run-on sentences!” he yells. “Gimme those dadburned periods!”


Jack’s sentences (and yours and mine) comprise phrases and clauses. A phrase contains a noun but not a verb: under the sun. A clause includes a noun and a verb. A clause can be dependent and dwell within a sentence: despite the sun blistering the backs of our necks; or it can be independent and form a sentence by itself: The sun blisters the backs of our necks. The problem arises when we jam two or more of these independent clauses into one sentence and give our readers no clue where one thought ends and the next begins. This is called a run-on sentence.


As we shall see, Jack prevents run-on sentences by using:


1) a period to separate different thoughts;

2) a semicolon to separate closely related thoughts; and

3) a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) to join thoughts.


Jack has a lot of thoughts, so he needs a lot of periods, semicolons, commas, and conjunctions. He’d brought a bunch with him on the road, but by Vegas he had used them all. He knows I keep a few thousand squirreled away in the Gore-Tex lining of my hiking boots, just in case. He needs some now, but so do many other people, like the insurance broker who wrote this sentence:


I was really embarrassed as we had asked the question initially we were told it was not possible so that was what we told the client.


She needs a period to separate the first two thoughts; a comma followed by a conjunction to join the second and third thoughts; and a semicolon to separate the third and fourth closely related thoughts:


I was really embarrassed. We had asked the question initially, but we were told it was not possible; so that was what we told the client.


Earlier, Jack’s sidekick Neal Cassady had written a letter to Jack, a long, stream-of-consciousness missive, now known as “The Joan Anderson letter.” Kerouac later said that after reading Cassady’s free-flowing prose, he tossed an earlier draft of On the Road and rewrote it in a similar stream-of-consciousness style, which he christened “Beat literature.” Cassady used many periods in the seminal letter, but he also wrote many run-on sentences:


It was pathetically clear how utterly weak she was, there seemed absolutely no blood left in her body. I stared and stared, she didn’t breathe, didn’t move; I would never have recognized her, she was a waxed mummy.


That’s where the two styles differ. The first edition of On the Road appeared in 1957, paginated and paragraphed and otherwise heavily edited for risqué content to avoid offending the sensibility of post-war America. Fifty years later, ON THE ROAD The Original Scroll was published exactly as Kerouac had written it: one page, no paragraphs, 120 feet long, with all sorts of boozing and drugging and fighting and frolicking. About fifty pages in we see:


Great laughter rang from all sides. I wondered what the Spirit of the Mountain was thinking; and looked up, and saw jackpines in the moon, and saw ghosts of old miners, and wondered about it. In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great western slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Eastern Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. And beyond, beyond, over the Sierras the other side of Carson sink was bejeweled bay-encircled nightlike old Frisco of my dreams. We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell. . . .


Free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness, Beat Literature, a startling new style. But no run-on sentences. To guide us through his thoughts and observations, Kerouac frames and carefully connects them with semicolons, commas, conjunctions, and periods. They travel light, and of late they’re becoming rare. Save them and keep them handy to guide your reader through your thoughts.


P.S. The original title punctuated: We Argue on the Road the Necessity of Periods. When We Come to a Stop, We Must Let Our Readers Know. Jack Wants Mine.

American Style

Although logic usually determines how we punctuate English, where we place quotation marks often defies that logic. At least in America. That’s why several of you have written to me lately to ask, “So what’s up with people putting periods outside the quotation mark?” The answer is: Either you are reading someone who made a mistake, or the writer is British. Or Canadian or Australian. Their system makes much more sense, but to keep a small piece of our sanity (and assuming we’re American) let’s continue to follow the American style. We don’t spell favor with a “u” just because the British do.


As The Chicago Manual of Style explains, “In defense of nearly a century and a half of the American style, however, it may be said that it seems to have been working fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication.” I.e., no one has died yet. When people start dying, we will switch to the British style. In the meantime.


Back to Basics
We have two kinds of quotations, direct and indirect. An indirect quotation sounds like this and requires no quotation marks:


Bob Dylan said he now prefers electric over acoustic.


A direct quotation sounds like this and requires quotation marks:


Bob Dylan said, “I now prefer electric over acoustic.”


The Burning Questions:


When do we place a comma before the quotation?


If the word said or a similar word precedes the quotation:
When Victoria entered, the chambermaid exclaimed, “But I shan’t be ready for another quarter of an hour, Your Highness!”


If the quotation blends with the sentence, you do not need a comma.


Mark Twain once opined that the two most important days of your life are “the day you are born and the day you find out why.”


How do we punctuate longer quotations?


Instead of enclosing longer quotations in quotation marks, we should indent them. Authorities differ slightly, but longer means poetry of three or more lines and prose of two or more sentences that run at least five lines. Introduce the offset quotation with a sentence ending in a colon:


According to his longtime producer, Woody Allen has written, produced, directed, and sometimes starred in a movie almost every year since the 1980s:


Where do we put the closing quotation mark?


In America, no matter how the material inside the quotation relates to the rest of a sentence (even if it’s only one word), the closing quotation mark always goes outside a comma or a period. It always goes inside a colon or a semicolon:


When Tamika said, “I’ll be all right, she did not know her cat had swallowed a hairball.
I was in the den reading Poe’s “The Telltale Heart; I didn’t even hear the screams emanating from the microwave.
Whether a quotation mark goes inside or outside a question mark (or dash or exclamation point) depends. If the sentence is not a question, but the quotation is a question, put the question mark inside, the quotation mark outside:


Georgina came running through the living room, yelling, “Where’s Jerome?


If the sentence is a question and the quotation is also a question, again put the question mark inside, the quotation mark outside, and do not follow it with another question mark.


Who do you think finally asked, “Could the problem be with the ignition?


But if the sentence is a question, and the quotation is not, put the quotation mark inside, the question mark outside:


Do you remember who said, “Give me liberty or promise me you’ll protect me and provide me with a lot of cash”?


If the quotation appears first and is a question, the question mark goes inside, the quotation mark outside, and it is not followed by a period or comma:


“What can I do for my country?” Kennedy urged American youth to ask.


Parting Points


To include a quotation within a quotation, enclose it with single quotation marks:


Then the speaker added, “As many of you know, Einstein once said, ‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
Enclose the titles of the following in quotation marks:


songs, essays, short stories, television episodes, short poems, chapters in a book, magazine and newspaper articles


Last, if you want to highlight a word or short phrase for emphasis, instead of using quotation marks, I would italicize. It’s cleaner. But make sure you need to emphasize.



I work for a large insurance company. A guy in our office has been here for a year and has spoken not one original word since he arrived. He strings corporate clichés together like a necklace. He writes to clients that his interface with them has been impactful. One time, he introduced me as the guy who offices next to him. Another time, he actually said, “They drank the Kool-Aid. Now we need to drill down and get our ducks in a row.” My jaw has come unhinged, and I’ve been grinding my teeth so much they’re now half as long as they used to be. Lately, I spend whole days fantasizing about grabbing the chalk end of a pool cue and taking aim at that little knob on the back of his skull. Please help, before I kill him. – JUSTIFIABLY HOMICIDAL


If you want colleagues and clients to take you seriously, cut the Corporatese:

No more pointless banter:

as you can imagine

if at all possible

let’s face facts

by way of background

let me explain what I mean

No more clichés:

drinking the Kool-Aid

moving the needle

pressing the flesh

peeling the onion

shooting the puppy


No more:

drilling down

circling back

reaching out

lawyering up

cutting bait

No more:





No more:

hard stops

deep dives

game plans

food chains

tiger teams

dogs in the fight


Don’t let me stop you. I have no patience with Corporatese. Have you ever wondered why the guy who says open the kimono is always the guy you would never want to see in a kimono, especially an open one? I know he’s using it to make a point, but he can make the point without exposing himself. Every time he writes or speaks this stuff, the real message is, “I have not one creative thought in my head.” That’s my point.

If my twin sister Ann or I ever spoke or wrote unimaginative pablum like this, our mother would wash our mouths out with Strunk & White. If she met your guy, she would throw him under a real bus. No metaphor there. I know a lot of smart people in the business world, and they have the same reaction my mother does when she sees sawdust in the sausage:

think outside the box – he doesn’t

if at all possible – I guess if it’s not possible, don’t worry about it

let’s face facts – nawww

by way of background – one of the many routes from Boston to Newport

let me explain what I mean – why didn’t you do that the first time?

And my all-time favorite: It is what it is. Oh my, how can you argue with that?

I propose we put everyone who speaks Corporatese on an island and let them hackney each other to death. But I don’t know if there’s an island big enough. Maybe Antarctica. Until that day, here’s my advice: Hang this guy off a scaffold with the window-washer. Before you haul him in, have him vow:

I will no longer drill down, circle back, reach out, lawyer up, or impact the bottom line.

I will never mention a hard stop, deep dive, game plan, food chain, or rodeo.

I will not drink the Kool-Aid, move the needle, press the flesh, peel the onion, or shoot the puppy.

I will stop implementing, facilitating, impacting, and accessing.

I will do nothing from the get go or going forward.

I will not pursue low-hanging fruit or cut bait, and tiger teams will remain cartoons busting out of gas tanks and cereal boxes.

I will not have a dog in the fight.

Then tell him that in place of all those stale expressions to use real words. No slang. No jargon. Instead of impactful use “effective,” because people then concentrate on the meaning of the sentence, not the jarring of the jargon.

Even better advice: Put the cue back in the rack and let him ramble in Corporatese. You will get the promotion, and he’ll still be officing next to where your office used to be. Or give me his name, and I’ll have Mother kill him.

Particularly Nasty Whether

(In case you’re wondering, and even if you aren’t, the title–with a different spelling–comes from just before the punchline (call it the setup) in a joke a law school friend told me the night before we graduated. We were driving around the countryside west of Gainesville, just the two of us, a six-pack of beer on the seat between us, telling nothing but the punchlines of jokes. If the other one liked the punchline, he would ask to hear the whole joke. I asked to hear this one. The whole evening was his idea. Later, he became a judge.)


A while back, I wrote that when we juxtapose the affirmative with the negative—and stick or in the middle—we usually need only the affirmative (See Tip: “On Or About Or”):



When we juxtapose the affirmative with the negative and stick or in the middle, we usually need only the affirmative:

Now, I have no idea exactly how Obama disciplines or doesn’t discipline Sasha and Malia.

Most often these unnecessary words are the expression or not following whether. Occasionally, we need or not, or the sentence makes no sense:

In fact, the responses will be mailed today and would have been mailed today whether or not I received your letter.
But we can usually shorten whether or not to whether, or even if. First, if it’s not already there, move or not next to whether; second, decide whether you need or not; third, when you can (and want to) replace whether with if:

I forgot to ask him whether he was on a small plane or not.

I forgot to ask him whether or not he was on a small plane.

I forgot to ask him whether or not he was on a small plane.

I forgot to ask him if he was on a small plane.

When you see the phrase regardless of whether or not, delete only regardless of:

I will have to prepare for trial regardless of whether or not we believe Ms. Nelson will appear.

The success or failure of the IPO depends on many factors.

Most often these unnecessary words are the expression or not following whether. Occasionally, we need or not, or the sentence makes no sense. Below are examples of when we need it, when we delete it, when we move it, and when we replace whether with if.


When we need or not:


A firmly decisive, top-down system means that projects are built whether or not people in local neighborhoods want them.


When we need or not in the phrase regardless of whether or not:


You are obligated to pay our fees regardless of whether or not the opposing party is ordered to pay your fees and costs.


When we delete or not:


The pushup also strengthens your core, and it’s a good indicator of whether or not you’re exercising enough now to avoid fat later.


When we move or not next to whether (always):


Whether it leads to true romance or not, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.


Whether or not it leads to true romance, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.


When we move and remove or not:


In determining whether the means used are improper or not, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:


In determining whether or not the means used are improper, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:


After we remove or not, do we replace whether with if?


According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, an obscure editor in 1762 arbitrarily declared that certain “Scotticisms,” like using if instead of whether, were improper. For a hundred years, everyone ignored him, and only a few still follow his “rule.” Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and other authors never did follow it. Sometimes if doesn’t make sense when replacing whether, but often it does, and if you prefer it, make the change:


Once you help me bring that laser focus to the project, they can decide whether or not if they want to do this.


Unabashed, self-serving postscript: At the push of a button, WordRake will make many of these whether or not edits for you; here are a few examples, with additional edits noted:


We need to decide whether or not proceeding with this action is in Carbine’s best interest.

The line had stopped moving; even the women who were free to go could go now stopped to watch her, regardless of whether or not they had any idea of knew what she was saying.

There was a big to-do about whether or not he was going to get would get his wish.

A Leech on His Tongue

In great film, a moment comes when the last layer of our natural cynicism peels away; we cease trying to figure out what will happen next; we forget that people with clipboards and headsets are running around behind the camera, chewing gum ten feet away. We relax into our seats and give ourselves over to the writer, the director, the actors, to perform their magic, to take us anywhere they please because they have earned our trust, and we are happy to be along for the ride. In film, if it ever occurs, the process can unfold in ten minutes.

With a book, it can happen in the first sentence, the first paragraph, that moment we let go and allow the storyteller to drive us anywhere, because we know that at the helm sits a real writer. It’s the joy of reading. Here are a few classic openings mixed with some of my favorites:


Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.


Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky:

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which would have me face about and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

I am an invisible man.

No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.


Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:


Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.


Discover Moses and the Bulrushers

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.


Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News:

HERE is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.


Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato:

It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead. The rain fed fungus that grew in the men’s boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue.


Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall:

You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes.


Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.


As loose and flowing, natural and rhythmic as they are, these sentences do not come easily; nor do they come quickly. I realize that most of us don’t have time to craft them in our report to the department, or our memorandum for a client, or our brief to the judge. But how inspiring to know it’s possible to capture so much with but a few words. And that if we stretched just a little further in that direction, perhaps that report, that memorandum, that brief, might sing to our audience in a more memorable way.

WordRake will not help us find these words. But it will help us spot the words that get in their way, so we can remove them to clear the air for the words that sing to our reader.








Thomas and the Boys

As you can see, we have in front of us one large bowl of chili, one small cedar tree, and an exceedingly jolly man. We also have two words, hearty and hardy, to describe each; but we stand here confused, and no wonder.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines hearty fifteen ways and hardy five, and some definitions of one sound suspiciously like some definitions of the other. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage describes hearty and hardy as “vaguely similar in meaning” in some senses, but “not interchangeable.” So when do we apply one to the bowl of chili, and the other to the little tree, and what about the friendly fella? Remember this, and it will help guide you through the maze: One who is both hearty and hardy can tell jokes in a snow cave.


Hearty once meant courageous and bold; over centuries that sense has drifted to hardy alone. But the line still blurs when we talk of physical prowess, because hearty can mean physically vigorous, strong, and healthy, and hardy can mean physically robust, strong, and sturdy. But hearty strength tends more to the lively, energetic kind, and hardy more to a strength that can endure great fatigue and hardship. Here’s a breakdown, drawing the line between the two:



The definitions of hearty and hardy can overlap slightly when describing physical prowess, but the two words have distinct meanings. We should not confuse them.


Use hearty to describe friendly and affectionate people; enthusiastic, vigorous, and jovial people; genuine, sincere, and devoted people; exuberant and forceful action; and abundant and nourishing food.


Use hardy to describe bold, daring, courageous people; strong, robust, and enduring people; audacious and foolhardy people; and anyone or anything that can withstand extreme hardship or conditions.

HEARTY refers to:

warm, friendly, affectionate people

enthusiastic, vigorous, jovial people

genuine, sincere, devoted people

exuberant, forceful action

nourishing food


HARDY refers to:

bold, daring, courageous people

strong, robust, enduring people

audacious, foolhardy people

anything that can survive extreme

hardship or conditions


In a thesis on the Hardy Boys, a masters candidate noted that the boys’ surname is not an accident, that Frank and Joe “always bounce back . . . because they are hardy boys, luckier and more clever than anyone around them.” They are also hearty, as the author describes them here:


While the Hardy boys can be boisterous, playful, and forceful when necessary [i.e., enthusiastic, jovial, forceful], those behaviors are also matched by honorable conduct [i.e., genuine, sincere, devoted].


In a sentence from Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy uses hearty in its most popular sense:


She could see the brown and black heads of the young lads darting about right and left . . . whilst occasionally a shout and a peal of hearty laughter varied the stillness of the evening air.


But here, did Hardy mean for his laborers to be a happy-go-lucky bunch or men conditioned to hardship? Or both? Some dictionaries define hearty as blithe.


“At one end of the street stood from two to three hundred blithe and hearty labourers waiting upon Chance — all men of the stamp to whom labour suggests nothing worse than a wrestle with gravitation . . . .”


I am not second-guessing Hardy’s choice, only suggesting it was a difficult one: I agonize over every word I write. In the second sentence below, Hardy must have agonized again: hardy and merry rarely mix, but they can; hearty and merry are synonymous; and hardy and thriving can be nearly synonymous. The sentence and its purpose only underscore the similarity of the two words and why we have to be careful when we use them. The rest is up to the author:


Moreover, the Weatherbury folk were by no means uninteresting intrinsically. If reports spoke truly they were as hardy, merry, thriving, wicked a set as any in the whole county.


To avoid confusion, I would let hardy describe the bold and courageous, the tough survivors, and the cattle, plants, and furniture we leave outside in the winter. Save hearty to cover friendly or jovial or vigorous or sincere people–and hot soup.

Bloody-Minded Tarantulas

Let’s examine a groundless grammar proclamation: That it is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable to write over instead of more than.


Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage calls the spittin’-nails intolerance of some editors to accept over as equal to more than a “hoary American newspaper tradition.” That means the battle has a long white beard.




Writing over rather than more than

is acceptable, and neither is preferred over the other. Even the Associated Press Stylebook now agrees.

It all began in the 1860s, when poet and Editor-in-Chief of the New York Evening Post for 50 years, William Cullen Bryant—not to be confused with William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times—produced a list of forbidden words and “usages” he wished not to see from his writers and editors at the Post. He warned, “The words in this list are to be avoided.” The first entry:


“Above and over, for ‘more than.’”


No explanation; just don’t do it. Bryant also preferred gentlemen to gents and pantaloons to pants, and shunned what he called “Wall Street slang,” like bulls and bears and long and short. The list grew into Bryant’s Index Expurgatorius, published in 1877, and because of Bryant’s stature as a romantic poet and editor of the Post, the Index became a bible for journalists.


While Bryant was terrorizing his staff at the Post, a journalist named Mark Twain had lit out for the Territory: the silver-mining, gold-panning, frog-jumping, horse-stealing, fist-fighting American West of the 1860s. When he wrote of his adventures in Roughing It, Twain either had never gotten Bryant’s memo or had ignored it when it arrived, because sometimes he uses over when he could have used more than:


“Two tons of silver bullion would be in the neighborhood of forty bars, and the freight on it over $1,000.”

“The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire!”


And sometimes he uses more than when he could have used over:


“. . . an atmosphere of such amazing magnifying properties that trees that seemed close at hand were more than three mile away.”

“. . . as the saddle went down over the horse’s rump he gave it a lift with his heels that sent it more than four hundred yards up in the air, I wish I may die in a minute if he didn’t.”


And sometimes he has nothing to decide:


“I know I am not capable of suffering more than I did during those few minutes of suspense in the dark, surrounded by those creeping, bloody-minded tarantulas.”


Twain’s decision rides on whichever was handy at that moment and in that context.


Another influential journalist writing in the late nineteenth century, Ambrose Bierce, compiled his own list of words and phrases to avoid: WRITE IT RIGHT, A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Bierce warned against using “Over for More than” as in “A sum of over ten thousand dollars.” Newspapers that hadn’t followed Bryant now followed Bierce, and the “rule” spread to almost every newspaper stylebook in America: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press. Ironically, Detroit Free Press adopted the rule even though the paper’s masthead read “On Guard for Over a Century.”


Almost two years ago, the Associated Press dropped the rule. The editor announced: “We decided on the change because it has become common usage.” It was never needed: Using over instead of more than had been around for about 600 years before Bryant or Bierce.


When appropriate, WordRake will replace more than with over. If you agree with Bryant and Bierce, hit the “Reject” button. That’s what it’s for.


Although the practice is acceptable today, polite society in 18th-century America did not tolerate those who played with their genitives. Especially in public. The faux pas was so serious that a violator could be forever banished from intellectual circles.


This was so because a gaggle of 18th-century grammarians—dilettantes who had butlers to brasso their buckles and maids to press their jodhpurs—had arbitrarily decreed: “From henceforth and forevermore the genitive form shall mean only the possessive form and the genitive marker shall be ‘s, and whosoever shall use this possessive form with inanimate objects shall be made to bear a scarlet ‘S.”


Quick lesson:


We use the genitive to express a relationship between nouns. It comes in two forms: the of (or genitive) form—“the purpose of the man,” “the mast of the ship”—and the ’s (or genitive/possessive) form—“the man’s purpose,” “the ship’s mast.”


The dilettantes reasoned that even a fool knows that ships are inanimate and therefore cannot possess anything, so the unenlightened caught writing “the ship’s mast” could find themselves not invited to the next garden party.


Inanimate Possessing

Today, playing with our genitives is acceptable because even the intellectual elite among us do not know that the possessive began long ago with something called the genitive. Here’s the simple rule now:


You may use the genitive/possessive form even with inanimate objects, like ships, unless it sounds awkward.


James Fernald writes in English Grammar Simplified, “The use of the inanimate possessive seems to be determined more by euphony than by logical prescription.” Because it is difficult to say “such risk’s likelihood,” it is better to write “the likelihood of such risk.” But either “the rays of the sun” or “the sun’s rays” is correct.


Joint Possessing

If two or more people possess an item or items together, we add ‘s only after the last person. Let’s say that George and Giuseppe together buy a 1949 MGTC; we then describe the antique car as:


George and Giuseppe’s ’49 TC


If George already owns a British racing green ’49 TC, and Giuseppe buys a turquoise ’49 TC, so their ownership of the cars is separate, we describe the cars as:


George’s and Giuseppe’s ’49 TCs


But if George and Giuseppe together own a British racing green ’49 TC, and the two together buy a turquoise ’49 TC, we again add ‘s only to the latter name:


George and Giuseppe’s ’49 TCs


Compound Possessing

Compound nouns contain two or more words, often separated by hyphens, but always read as one unit. Form their possessive and the possessive of any “closely associated” words by adding ‘s to the end:


my brother-in-law’s boat

the National Institute of Science’s recommendation


Double Possessing

Sometimes we combine the genitive of construction with the genitive/possessive ‘s construction: a tic of Lucretia’s; a habit of Susan’s. Why this is acceptable used to confound me; shouldn’t we write a tic of Lucretia, and a habit of Susan? But think of it this way: If we wrote with the of construction using pronouns, which form of the pronoun would we use? The possessive: a friend of mine, not a friend of me; a book of his, not a book of him. So when a noun appears after the of, it too must be in the possessive form: a client of the firm’s.

Among the Soapsuds

A while back, I compared fewer to less (See Tip: “Still Another Three Words Many Writers Misuse”), and we saw that fewer applies only where we can separate something, like trees, and that we use less only where we cannot separate something, like shade.


A similar relationship exists between among and certain other prepositions, like in, amid, within, and through. If we can separate the items, we should use among; if we cannot separate them, we should use another preposition. Below, we can’t separate news or debris:


Among In today’s news from Baghdad is a piece predicting a Kurdish victory in Kobani.

First responders searched among through the twisted debris for survivors.


I would be correct (two ways), however, to write, “This Tip is among the shortest I have ever written.” Among is correct because we can separate the Tips and count them. And this Tip is one of the shortest.

So we have countable things and uncountable things; but grammarians love to taunt us, so they add a third category: mass or collective nouns. This is where the point gets stickier. A collective noun is one you could count if you wanted to and had the time, but few of us would bother; for example, “Basque sheep-herding families” or “the elite of America’s blue-collar workers.” The grammarians tell us that among should accompany these collective nouns because collective nouns are “notionally plural.” (God help us.)


In The Yearling, published in 1938 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes:


He began to be sick again and let the boat drift among the cat-tails.


I suppose, if we wanted to, we could count all of the cattails, so among would be correct. But in the following example, we should use another preposition because we cannot count fast enough to get all the bubbles:


He opened one bright eye among amid the soap-suds and winked at his son.


Use among with things we can count (even if we would have to spend hours counting), and find another preposition for those we cannot count.