Fishing and Renal Services

Fair or not, readers evaluate what we say by how we say it. If our writing contains typos, we signal to our readers that we don’t care about what we’re saying, and if we don’t care, why should they? Every typo chips away at our credibility.

 

Typos come in three sizes. First, the little typo: We’re not confused, just amused:

 

the current plat is not economically feasibility

those who have conducted experiment with Oust

and so it not surprising

Forest service

which is also accords with

based on Jeff’ email

its ability to indicate with when someone is responding

initiate an action for recover of a fraudulent transfer

prior to the terminating the APX contract

 

Second, typos that might be more serious problems like grammatical slips or incorrect word usage; we’re not sure. These make colleagues and clients wonder, “If they can’t get the simple things right, how can I trust them to straighten out the more complicated stuff?”

 

the independent contractors’ conduct were incidental

the principals acts of ratification

it is TRM, and not the customers, who seek relief

plaintiffs experts looked at the evidence

 

Third, clumps of words that make no sense:

 

Accordingly, Unico’s best defense is to argue that the independent contract department from the ordinary course of conducting the activity.

 

If I’m Unico’s in-house counsel, I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s my best defense? And the guy who wrote that sentence is representing me in front of a judge who’s going to decide what happens to us?”

 

Every writer needs an editor. (See Tip: “A Secret Writing Weapon.”) Have your secretary or a colleague proofread everything you send down the hall or across the country. A proofreader does not need an advanced degree to spot slips like these:

 

on a number if occasions

an attorney is compelled withdraw

$110,000 per year as well was the opportunity to earn commissions

a number of claims against employees and potential the corporate entity

Under Oregon law, pesticides are considered hazardous waste under Oregon law.

 

Last, you’ve heard it before: Do not rely on spellcheck or grammar check. Centuries before such programs were available, the scribes’ misspelling of public provided raucous entertainment for kings and queens, beggars and serfs. Since the inception of this software, we have seen not a dent in the misspelling, from National Pubic Radio, to our president’s new pubic policy, to pubic relations, to the monthly meeting of Pubic Information Officers. And of course we all want to provide our children with a good pubic education. I’m sure I missed a few.

 

Rental and renal are also spelled correctly. But in the energy production sector along the Texas Gulf Coast, we should not confuse them:

 

Fusion offers a variety of onshore energy production services, including workover services, fluid and logistics services, fishing and renal services, and drilling.

 

Make sure they wash their hands first.

 

We all make mistakes—you know I do; we’ll never get it 100 percent correct. But at the level at which we write, we have to be correct almost all of the time. So either read carefully for typos in one final pass, or have someone you trust do that for you. And both of you should use WordRake to help you find the extraneous words that obscure the words with meaning. Your credibility rides with every sentence.

Matt Has a Big Damon Smile on His Face

THE LESSON

 

Subjects must match their verbs and pronouns, but we can’t match the verb and the pronoun to a subject until we identify the subject.

 

When we try to find the subject, we ignore prepositional phrases:

 

One of those actors perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

This one’s easy: we ignore of those actors, so One must match performs and his:

 

One of those actors perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

But things get more complicated when we face a more complex sentence:

 

One of those actors who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts is Matt Damon.

 

Now, do we match the verb and pronoun to One or actors? FREEZE FRAME: Who and the words following form a relative clause. A relative clause is a group of words that modify the word (actors) preceding the relative pronoun (who). There are five relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and that. One of those pronouns will always begin a relative clause to form its own little sentence. The verb and pronoun in this relative clause must match its subject actors:

 

. . . actors (who) perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

One of those actors is Matt Damon. So:

 

One of those actors who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts is Matt Damon.

Today we continue our fascinating discussion on how to determine which word in our sentence is the subject. Without knowing that, we can’t match it to our verbs and pronouns, and our reader thinks we don’t know what we’re talking about. But before you fall asleep, I warn you that this is one of those situations where the subject is not easy to find. You will not want to miss this episode.

 

In one of those situations our brains often shut down because we can’t find the subject, causing all of our little synapses to short out, so now we really can’t think. We hope that maybe our reader won’t notice. But this is a dangerous game, where proper training, quick thinking, and Matt Damon help. It’s one of those problems about one of those. If I get anymore excited, I might burst.

 

One of Those Problems

One of those is a pattern we frequently see and frequently don’t know how to handle, because the subject might be the singular word One, or it might be the plural word following One. Until we decide, we can’t match the number of the verb or a pronoun. We’re assaulted by our first foe:

 

One of those actors perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

We dispense with this one easily. One is singular and actors is plural, and to determine whether we choose perform or performs, his or their, as the matching verb and pronoun, we ignore the prepositional phrase of those actors; then we join the singular subject One with the singular verb performs and the singular pronoun his.

 

One of those actors perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

That was easy. But we turn, and behind us is a more formidable opponent, one capable of shape-shifting, a more complex villain:

 

One of those actors who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts is Matt Damon.

 

We still have One, and we still have actors, but now we have a clause modifying actors:

 

. . . who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

Freeze-frame that scene as we go into slo-mo: Who and the words following form a relative (or adjective) clause. A relative clause is a group of words that modify the word (actors) preceding the relative pronoun (who). There are five relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and that. One of those pronouns will always begin a relative clause to form its own little sentence. So actors by itself is no longer the object of a preposition–actors and the relative clause together are the object–and the verb and pronoun in this relative clause must match the subject modified–actors:

 

. . . actors (who) perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

One of those actors is Matt Damon. So:

 

One of those actors who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts is Matt Damon.

 

Back in regular-mo, even if the sentence shapeshifts into a different form, the subject remains the same:

 

Matt Damon is one of those actors who perform/performs many of his/their own stunts.

 

Cut! As Matt walks away, he has that big Damon smile on his face. Which is a good place to have it.

Kluber’s Head Rolls into Right Field

For weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way you could dazzle friends with clever comments about pronouns. At first I tried for something oblique and dismissive, but thought-provoking – like standing before a painting at Chicago’s Art Institute, thumb and forefinger caressing your chin, and muttering, “It’s so derivative.”

 

Then it hit me: a parlor game! Like “Charades” or “Jenga!” We’ll call it “Pronopoly!” Just throw out a pronoun and everyone tries to guess its gender, person, number, and case! (Who knew pronouns could have so many properties? Or be so complex?) Someone yells, “Her!” and the room erupts, “Feminine, third person, singular, objective!” You can imagine how quickly this could get out of hand. I’ve tried it in social settings, and the game gets so intense, people faint. I taught it to our WordRake engineers, and now they’re leading conga lines.

 

I thought again: Why not ratchet it up a notch? Let’s see who can come up with the Oscar Wildest play on words using misplaced pronouns, like:

 

Peter’s dog died when he was 42. (“An old dog,” Oscar would say.)

 

Or:

 

After Bryant lined the ball off Kluber’s head, it rolled into right field. (“What happened to the ball,” Oscar would say.)

 

In my experience, such witticism in the parlor usually subsides into thoughtful reflection and leads to enlightened discussion on how pronouns help to curb formality and monotony, so we can communicate better and faster to avoid this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate Mr. Leiberman. The partners knew Mr. Leiberman was a member when the partners hired Mr. Leiberman, and the partners were committed to accommodating Mr. Leiberman’s Guard schedule.

 

by writing this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate him. They knew he was a member when they hired him, and they were committed to accommodating his Guard schedule.

 

The news of Peter’s 42-year-old dog might not be so serious in the middle-schooler’s neighborhood blog, but if one of us makes a similar mistake in professional life, it can confuse clients and colleagues who don’t know whom we mean by “they”; that’s when we see time and money lost, and patience thinned. To wit:

 

Although supervisors do not receive these reports, they could help us explain the company’s position.

 

We have two antecedents out front, and they could refer to either. Who or what could help us explain: the supervisors or the reports? Our readers don’t know. Until someone does know, no one can act. Do we call the supervisors or gather the reports? Our client’s clock is ticking, and we’ve just lost our kingdom for a pronoun.

 

Wow, who knew we could learn so much from a parlor game? And have so much fun? Wow again. When and where you play is up to you. I’m thinking a round or two between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. When the guy in the apron asks, “Would you like the pumpkin or the mincemeat?” yell, “You!” and stand back while the place explodes. “Generic! Second person! Singular and plur . . . .”

The Borg Blog

I am sure of one thing: Amid the styrofoam cups and peanut shells in the Star Trek Writers Room, the writers wrestled with one problem more than any other: Is Borg singular or plural?

THE LESSON

Dealing with “collective nouns” might be the most frustrating of grammar issues. One authority calls them “a continuing source of perplexity.”

 

Collective nouns perplex because they are singular “in form” but either singular or plural “in concept”— team, troop, family, jury, committee, crowd, tribe, and about 200 others—but we have to match them in number to verbs and pronouns: is/are, goes/go, its/their.

 

To help clear the confusion, start with this from Diana Hacker in A Writer’s Reference: “If the group functions as a unit, treat the noun as singular; if the members of the group function individually, treat the noun as plural.”:

 

The team enter/enters the stadium.

 

The British would write enter. In America, we write enters because all those players “function” as a unit. But when we write:

The team stretch/stretches on the field.

 

the players function individually, eighteen of them, so stretch would be correct. Or use a word that describes the individuals in the collective: members, players, jurors, people, soldiers, students.

 

The players stretch on the field.

 

All grammarians agree: Within the sentence, be consistent: If you use a singular verb, use a singular pronoun:

 

The young team hopes to at least score in their its opening match.

 

Two special cases: Treat bands and branded sports teams, even those with singular names, as plural—Lady Antebellum/Orlando Magic are—unless referring to a team by location only; then make it singular—Orlando/Chicago/San Francisco is.

 

 

Matching collective nouns with verbs and pronouns might be the most frustrating of all grammatical issues—mostly because we have no clear answer. One authority calls collective nouns “a continuing source of perplexity.” Another calls collective nouns and how we treat them, “more oddities of English grammar.” And not one authority I can find has a definitive statement on how to corral this problem, where two lines of logic intersect.

 

Here’s the problem: Collective nouns are singular “in form” but either singular or plural “in concept”—team, troop, family, jury, committee, crowd, tribe, and about 200 others—but we have to match them in number to verbs and pronouns: is/are, goes/go, its/their.

 

Probably the most confounding collective noun in the English language is Borg, that/those interstellar villain/villains, that cruises/cruise the Alpha Quadrant and gobbles/gobble up protoplasm in Star Trek. Borg is/are billions of drones with bio-chips implanted in its/their brain/brains to link it/them to the “Collective Consciousness.” When scanned, “hive-mind” drones register as one, and it/they never says/say “I” or “we.” That’s because it/they is/are brainwashed.

 

You can see the difficulty of trying to match the number of a verb or a pronoun to one evil collective brain with a mouth the size of Jupiter, but composed of billions of interconnected drones. I can hear rabid debates between two Star Trek writers over whether Commander Riker rushes to the bridge and shouts, “The Borg has assimilated Captain Picard!” Or, “The Borg have assimilated Captain Picard!”

 

The same applies to team. One team, but many players. Do we match it to singular verbs and pronouns or plural? The British decided to treat collective nouns as plural and give them plural verbs: the team were, the government say, the Borg devour. In America, we decided to treat them as singular and give them singular verbs: the team was, the government says, the Borg

 

devours—proving once again that we no longer have to bow to the Queen.

When grammarians get together to plot how to confuse the rest of us and end up confusing themselves, they often play the “Do what sounds best” card, or the “It depends” card. The card they play with collective nouns reads: “What the writer has in mind should be the controlling factor,” one of the more confusing statements about grammar. How do we know what the writer has in mind?

 

Mid-twentieth-century grammarian Margaret Bryant wrote, “If a group of words . . . creates one conception in the mind of the person using them as a subject, a singular verb follows. In Modern English where there is a conflict between form and meaning, meaning tends to triumph.” That means that no matter what we write, we’re probably correct as long as we were sincere when we wrote it.

In A Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker narrows the rule a bit: “If the group functions as a unit, treat the noun as singular; if the members of the group function individually, treat the noun as plural.” That’s not always clear, but as the Forces of Singularity battle the Forces of Plurality here on Earth, we usually can discern the logic she proposes and write accordingly:

 

The team enter/enters the stadium.

 

The British would write enter, but in America, despite the team comprising 18 players, we would write enters because all those players function as a unit when entering. But when we write:

 

The team stretch/stretches on the field.

 

we know the players function individually, eighteen of them, so stretch would be correct. Which brings us to an excellent point: Rather than trying to determine who is functioning as what, use a word that describes one of the collective: members, players, jurors, people, soldiers, students, drones.

 

The players stretch on the field.

 

One thing grammarians sing as a single chorus: Within the sentence, be consistent. If you use a singular verb with a collective noun, then use a singular pronoun:

 

The young team hopes to at least score in their its opening match.

 

Two special cases: Treat bands and branded sports teams, even those with singular names, as plural—Lady Antebellum/Orlando Magic areunless referring to a team by location only; then make it singular—Orlando/Chicago/San Francisco is. I can’t imagine that the edge of arcane stretches any farther than this.

 

I’m still not sure what to tell Captain Picard when suddenly on the bridge appear/appears Borg. But because one is over here and another over there, I assume there are two in the room, and even in 2373, one and one still make two, which is plural. But wait! Both drones are wired into the Collective, which is singular. What to do? Does he exclaim, “Abandon ship! Borg has breached security!” Or, “All hands on deck! Borg are storming the bridge!” These are tough questions. And resistance is futile.

Nor Man

 

THE LESSON

We all understand that we follow neither with nor. But any other negative—no, not, never—we should follow with or, because the negative from the first phrase is “carried on.”

There is no fee nor or obligation to be listed.

At least two authorities hold that we may use nor if we want to emphasize the key word in the second phrase.

He would not testify nor even appear in court.

To keep it simple, I suggest never using nor where we can use or (in the example above, even already does the emphasizing).

Two more points: It’s okay to begin a sentence with nor:

Nor does his Complaint contain any hostile work environment claim.

Although nor is a “coordinating conjunction,” and therefore must be preceded by at least a comma, a semicolon almost always serves better:

Roberts lacked either a license or the ability to obtain one,; nor did he have the years of full-time maintenance experience.

Last week I had one of those nights where you wake up about 2:30 with an old song running through your head and it won’t stop, like Roy Orbison’s Blue Angel or *NSYNC’s Tearin’ Up My Heart. That night it was a song I hadn’t heard in a long, long, long while. If you remember it, you’re either dead, or you got all of the good genes in a family of eight. Here are the lyrics I remember that kept looping through my brain:

Joey asked me for a date
Wanted to take me out to skate
But I told Joey he would have to make
‘Rangements with Nor-man

Nor-man, uu uu uu uu uu uu
Nor-man, uu uu uu uu uu uu
Nor-man, Nor-man, my lu-uve.

I don’t know who wrote it; they’re probably still in the Witness Protection Program. But amidst all that pink “Norman” frosting lay a reminder of something that has bothered me for years: aside from hearing computer engineers talk about the word as the “inverse of an OR circuit,” rarely do we hear anyone discuss the correct usage of the word nor.

I’m not talking about neither/nor; you already get that, and you know we can use more than one nor:

There is nothing served about there; neither tea, nor coffee, nor lemonade, nor anything whatever . . . .”

But any other negative—no, not, never—we should follow with or, because, as Fowler says, “. . . [the negative’s] force is carried on.”:

Not a coupe nor or a convertible, the Targa is a T-top with a sliding glass roof.

There is no fee nor or obligation to be listed.

Neither Strunk nor White mentions nor in the original The Elements of Style, but editors of the classic have added this comment in recent editions.

Nor. Often used wrongly for or after negative expressions.

He cannot eat nor sleep.

As suitable rewrites, they offer:

He cannot eat or sleep.
He can neither eat nor sleep.
He cannot eat nor can he sleep.

In that last one, I would place a semicolon after eat.

In The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein contradicts Fowler and Strunk & White, but only narrowly, allowing the writer to choose: “By itself, nor may sometimes be substituted for or in a negative context to emphasize the negation”:

He would not testify nor even appear in court.

Even often appears in this pattern anyway, so it already emphasizes. I still would use or.

All four of these renowned authorities would have tsked-tsked this Twain sentence from Roughing It:

. . . now we had no swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions in the Rocky Mountains, and no stovepipe hats nor or patent leather boots, nor or anything else necessary to make life calm and peaceful.

To keep it simple, I suggest never using nor where we can use or. But if we “wall off” the negative in the first phrase (as one grammarian put it), so it does not “carry on” to the second phrase, everyone agrees: We need to open the second phrase with nor, and often that requires a “slight change of arrangement”:

Her eyes showed no surprise, nor changed did they change their position in the slightest.

I would also turn that comma after surprise into a semicolon. Two more points: It’s okay to begin a sentence with nor:

Nor does his Complaint contain any hostile work environment claim.

And remember that nor is a “coordinating conjunction,” so we need to separate it from the previous clause with at least a comma; but again that separation always seems abrupt enough that I would use a semicolon.

He never held any ownership in the company,; nor was he a member of the board of directors.

That’s all you need to know about nor, man. Thank you. I’m going back to sleep now.

A Doppelgänger in Argentina

Each of us is unique. We are not pretty unique, or sort of unique, or comparatively unique; each of us is one of a kind.

THE LESSON

Absolute adjectives are the black and white words on the grammar palette: they either are or they are not. In their strictest sense, they have no degrees, so we may not modify them with:

the comparative more
the superlative most
intensifiers like very and quite

One thing cannot be rounder than another, or the roundest of all, or very round, or quite round. But we may modify absolute adjectives—this is the confusing part—to indicate something approaching them, so:

nearly round but not incredibly round
almost smooth but not really smooth
about straight but not perfectly straight
all but blank but not completely blank
perhaps unique but not rather unique

Here is a good list of absolute adjectives; there are more:

absolute, blank, certain, circular, complete, dead, empty, equal, essential, eternal, final, fatal, favorite, perfect, permanent, perpendicular, pure, square, straight, supreme, total, unanimous, unique, vacant

Adjectives not strict in any sense, describe a quality that can exist to a greater or lesser degree: remarkable, exceptional, fabulous, rare, marvelous. With adverbs, we can slice these adjectives into degrees like so much baloney—truly remarkable, somewhat rare, rather marvelous.

Rather than try to modify an absolute adjective with more or most or an intensifier, try replacing the absolute with an adjective we can modify:

I am now living in one of the most unique beautiful (remarkable, exceptional, fabulous) cities in America.

Grammarians call unique an absolute adjective, “applicable only to what is in some respect the sole existing specimen,” says Fowler in the classic Fowler’s Modern English Usage. We could search the world over for another you, but we would never find it.

Unique and other absolute adjectives are the black and white words on our grammar palette. In its strictest sense (remember that phrase), an absolute adjective is or it isn’t. Take, for instance:

parallel

Nothing can be more than parallel or the most parallel; nothing can be very, rather, or comparatively parallel; but, and this is the important point—something can approach parallelism, as in almost, nearly, or just about parallel.

I will say this again, another way, because the point confuses even authorities. If a word in its strictest sense describes a condition without degrees—smooth, round, straight—we may modify it, but not with a comparativemore—not with a superlativemost—and not with an intensifier—very. We may modify it only with words that describe approaching the absolute adjective:

incorrect: really smooth, incredibly round, perfectly straight
correct: almost smooth, nearly round, not quite straight.

Nothing can be somewhat permanent or very unique. But something can approach permanence or uniqueness, as in nearly permanent (his parents pray he will find an apartment), or almost unique (but for a doppelgänger we found in Argentina). And we may write that one thing approaches closer than another approaches, as in more nearly perfect. But, one more time: In its strictest sense, an absolute adjective, cannot be compared, cannot be crowned, cannot be intensified.

If you can appreciate the difference between somewhat and almost, you understand as much about absolute adjectives as do the authorities.

Adjectives that are not strict in any sense describe a quality that can exist to a greater or lesser degree. Fowler points out that we often “ignorantly” write unique when we mean remarkable, exceptional, fabulous, rare, marvelous. With adverbs, we can slice these adjectives into degrees like so much baloney—truly remarkable, somewhat rare, rather marvelous. Rather than try to modify an absolute adjective with more or most or an intensifier, we sometimes replace the absolute with an adjective we can modify:

I am now living in one of the most unique beautiful (remarkable, exceptional, fabulous) cities in America.

Gears are a somewhat unique rare (unusual, unknown, difficult) commodity.

Although authorities agree that mistakenly modifying absolutes is a problem, not one authority can agree with another on a list of these words that defy modification. Blending the lists of several authorities, the following is a start on compiling absolute adjectives; there are others:

absolute, blank, certain, circular, complete, dead, empty, equal, essential, eternal, final, fatal, favorite, perfect, permanent, perpendicular, pure, square, straight, supreme, total, unanimous, unique, vacant

One last question: Why can’t we just go ahead and modify absolute adjectives? In The Careful Writer Theodore Bernstein worries that if we allow the “literary unwashed” (his description) to decide that more unique is correct usage, “the meaning of unique becomes eroded. What word will we then have,” he laments, “to convey the meaning of ‘the only one of its kind’?” Like WordRake. Or as Fowler would describe it, “the sole existing specimen, the like of which may be sought in vain.”

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.

Caveat

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 wordrake.com and have the WordRake editing software show you how to find the dull and unnecessary words in that brief. Right this minute.

Bow Hunters Stalking Wild Turkeys

Hear that? That’s the sound of an apostrophe. It’s like listening to a hoot owl blink. If we listened to a whole symphony of apostrophes, it would sound the same, like a bunch of hoot owls blinking. Nothing. That’s because apostrophes are not even punctuation, but part of the spelling, little symbols to help guide and inform our eyes. We talk right on by them, and we never hear them:

 

THE LESSON

apostrophes

Besides forming contractions and possessives, we use apostrophes for two things, to:

 

indicate missing numbers in dates: ’67; and missing letters in words: fixin’ to list’n to rock ‘n’ roll.

 

form the plural of single letters, words, and abbreviations (with periods): p’s and q’s, too many “and’s,” Ph.D.’s.

 

Not one grammar book clearly answers this question: If we need to distinguish a letter or word with italics or quotation marks, do we use an apostrophe to form its plural? Here’s the closest rule I can give you: We italicize the letters or words, then add a Roman s with no apostrophe; or we surround the letters or words in quotation marks and add the apostrophe. Note that the apostrophe and the s are never italicized:

 

How many ns are in the title Finnegans Wake?

Write with fewer “but’s.”

 

Do not use apostrophes to form:

 

a standard plural: bananas; apples.

 

the plural of abbreviations without periods: IRAs, SOWs.

 

the plural of decades or centuries: the 1860s, the 1700s.

 

The most famous of all apostrophes is the one that separates it from s to indicate a contraction for it is or it has. The possessive its never contains an apostrophe.

the summer of ’67

two weeks’ notice

mind your “p’s” and “q’s”

check their I.D.’s

 

Not a whisper, like they aren’t even there. We hear periods and commas, colons and semicolons, exclamation points and question marks, a pause, a stop, a restart, surprise, query, but never do we hear an apostrophe. That’s why they are so hard to use. Our ear cannot help us. Bow hunters stalking wild turkeys would be wise to study apostrophes.

 

In the 1980s a grammarian named Robert Pinckert wrote Pinckert’s Practical Grammar in which he observed that we misuse apostrophes not because we are stupid but because apostrophes are about as useful as gums on a barracuda. “Strong players in the Game of English,” says Pinckert, “love to find misused apostrophes and then laugh or scowl . . . at the weaker players. You must learn about apostrophes, not because they’re worth knowing, but to protect yourself.”

 

Pinckert’s a little harsh, but he has a point: Once we get beyond forming contractions–which is simple, and you already know how to do that–and forming possessives–which we’ve already discussed (See Tips: “Farmers Market Syndrome” and “Possessed”)–the other apostrophe rules seem whimsical: Let’s stick one in here, but not over there. Okay.

 

PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM THE GRAMMAR BULLIES

First, we don’t need an apostrophe when we simply want to make a singular word plural. Otherwise, we end up writing signs for banana’s and apple’s. It’s just a plural, nothing fancy, add an s: bananas, apples. No apostrophe. Most of the bullies will now leave you alone.

 

FILLING IN MISSING NUMBERS AND LETTERS

 

Second, after we get past the contractions and possessives, we use apostrophes mostly to replace missing numbers in a date and missing letters in a word. The latter need usually arises when we try to write dialogue:

 

I was in California in ’67, the Summer of Love, but got lost in San Bernardino.

I’s jus fixin to whi u sun grits. Wansun?

 

ABBREVIATIONS WITHOUT PERIODS

Then we get into an area that changes with the times, the whimsical part, and right now The Modern Language Association, The Chicago Manual of Style, and publishers’ style guides all recommend not using an apostrophe in plurals of numbers written as nouns, or in abbreviations–but only abbreviations without periods (abbreviations with periods are different, and I’m sure that whoever thought that one up had a very good reason, but I don’t know what it is; more below):

 

figure 8s, the 1990s, IRAs, the ABCs, YMCAs, IOUs

 

ABBREVIATIONS WITH PERIODS

Now more whimsy, disguised as rule: If an abbreviation has more than one period, form the plural by adding an apostrophe and an s: M.D.’s, Ph.D.’s, I.D.’s. If there is only one period at the end, add the s before the period and skip the apostrophe: vols., yrs. But don’t follow this one blindly, or the plural of Mr. becomes Mrs.; use Messrs. and Mmes. It’s so continental.

 

MAKING SINGLE LETTERS AND CERTAIN WORDS PLURAL

This is the most confusing. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, when we need to distinguish letters or words, we italicize them: the letter q; a capital W; the suffix es; the word but. But not one grammar book I can find is clear on whether the plural of those letters and words requires an apostrophe. This is the clearest rule I can offer you: We have two choices: either we italicize them and add a Roman s with no apostrophe; or we surround the letters or words in quotation marks and add the apostrophe.

 

How many ns are in the title Finnegans Wake?

Write with fewer “but’s.”

One more of his “hallelujah’s” and Samantha vowed she would nail him with a blowdart.

 

The only time we add an apostrophe to an italicized word is when we might otherwise confuse our reader, as we see in this sentence:

 

Dot the is and cross the ts. Dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s.

 

WARNING:

Always use an apostrophe after an indefinite pronoun to form the possessive: anybody’s guess, everybody’s nightmare. But never use an apostrophe with the already possessive pronouns: its, hers, his, ours, yours, theirs, whose, and oneself. The most infamous of all apostrophes is the one that separates it from s to form the contraction for it is or it has. The possessive its never contains an apostrophe.

Because We Haven’t Done Vampires – An Exercise in Editing

As promised, I have created another exercise for you to practice your editing skills. The following email contains 38 grammar, spelling, usage, punctuation, homonym, and typo problems. You don’t need to reword or try to improve the writing, ONLY NOTE THE MISTAKES. When you have finished, check your edits by scrolling down to MISTAKES EXPLAINED. Fair or not, our colleagues often judge our capability by noting our carelessness. If you want a promotion, proofread your work.

 

rvolturi@paramount.com

Subject: location at your farm

Date: April 3, 2016, 11:59:59 PM PDT

To: Isabella Swan

 

Isabella, I appreciate you speaking with me today and sending me pictures of the cemetary. You have a very unique setting and the affect of the Spanish moss in the live oaks will be perfect with the fool moon shining through the trees. Its going to be really spooky. About the headstones. We will need to clean up some them so the audience can see those dates from the 1800’s. You seemed to imply that that will not be a problem.

 

Is their a convenient time for you and I to meet at the cemetary? I am anxious to see the sight for myself. After that, I promise not to bug you, but I will check in occassionally.

 

I appreciate Edward offering to provide garlic and wooden stakes, we’re shooting a different kind of vampire, so we will not be needing those props. Also, I did not mean to infer that Paramount would be adverse to you inviting a few friends and family to watch filming, but we do ask that you be discrete.

 

To answer your other question: no, the werewolves are not real; its all done with green screen technology. But the vampires are real. I’m just kidding; the werewolves are real to; ha-ha, a little Hollywood humor.

 

I have one more request. Can we bring our own bats. As I mentioned, myself and everyone at the studio will do everything we can to insure nothing happens to your native bat population. Plus, representatives of the ASPCA will be on location to monitor and offer there expertise. That will all be in the contact.

 

Last, I am happy to confirm that on the first day of shooting, your receiving a check for $50,000 for the two nights. I will have the studio chef’s assistant call you regarding payment.

 

That’s it. If you have any questions, hopefully you will contact myself or your welcome to speak with my assistant, Kristen. Pray for mostly clear skies with moonraker clouds, or we’ll have to pay extra to have them digitized!

 

Warm regards,
Richard Volturi
Location Manger
Paramont Pictures

 

MISTAKES EXPLAINED

 

rvolturi@paramount.com

Subject: location at your farm

Date: April 3, 2016, 11:59:59 PM PDT

To: Isabella Swan

 

Isabella, I appreciate you (should be your, possessive pronoun with gerund – See Tip: “’Hallelujah!’ in the Hallway”) speaking with me today and sending me pictures of the cemetary (spelling – should be cemetery). You have a very (remove very – unique is an absolute – it has no degrees – See Tip: “A Unique Problem”) unique setting, (missing a comma – two independent clauses must be joined by a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction – See Tip: “We Talk on the Road”) and the affect (usage – should be the noun effect) of the Spanish moss in the live oaks will be perfect with the fool (typo – should be full) moon shining through the trees. Its (punctuation – should be the contraction It’s) going to be really spooky. About the headstones. (sentence fragment) We will need to clean up some them (typo – missing of) so the audience can see those dates from the 1800’s (remove the apostrophe – it’s neither a contraction nor a possesive, but merely a plural). You seemed to imply that that will not be a problem.

 

 Is their (homonym – should be there) a convenient time for you and I (me – the pronoun is the object of for) to meet at the cemetary (spelling – should be cemetery)? I am anxious (usage – should be eager – See Tip: “Three Words Many Writers Misuse”) to see the sight (homonym – should be site) for myself. After that, I promise not to bug you, but I will check in occassionally (spelling – should be occasionally).

 

I appreciate Edward (should be Edward’s, possessive noun with gerund – See Tip: “’Hallelujah!’ in the Hallway”) offering to provide garlic and wooden stakes, we’re (run-on sentence – should be a period after stakes and a capital W in we’re to create a new sentence – See Tip: “We Talk on the Road”) shooting a different kind of vampire, so we will not be needing those props. Also, I did not mean to infer (usage – should be imply – See Tip: “Three More Words Many Writers Misuse”) that Paramount would be adverse (usage – should be averse – See Tip: “Three Words Many Writers Misuse”)  to you (should be your, possessive pronoun with gerund – See Tip: “’Hallelujah!’ in the Hallway”) inviting a few friends and family to watch filming, but we do ask that you be discrete (homonym – should be discreet).

 

To answer your other question: no, the werewolves are not real; its (punctuation – should be the contraction it’s) all done with green screen technology. But the vampires are real. I’m just kidding; the werewolves are real to (homonym – should be too); ha-ha, a little Hollywood humor.

 

I have one more request. Can (usage – should be may – asking for permission – See Tip: “Still Another Three Words Many Writers Misuse”) we bring our own bats. (punctuation – should be a question mark) As I mentioned, myself (usage – should be the subjective I – See Tip: “On Behalf of Myself”) and everyone at the studio will do everything we can to insure (usage – should be ensure) nothing happens to your native bat population. Plus, representatives of the ASPCA will be on location to monitor and offer there (homonym – should be their) expertise. That will all be in the contact (typo – should be contract).

 

Last, I am happy to confirm that on the first day of shooting, your (homonym – should be you’re) receiving a check for $50,000 for the two nights. I will have the studio chef’s (typo – should be chief’s) assistant call you regarding payment.

 

That’s it. If you have any questions, hopefully (usage – should be I hope – See Tip: “Three Words That Aren’t”) you will contact myself (usage – should be the objective me – See Tip: “On Behalf of Myself”), (missing a comma – two independent clauses must be joined by a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction – See Tip: “We Talk on the Road”) or your (homonym – should be you’re) welcome to speak with my assistant, Kristen. Pray for mostly clear skies with moonraker clouds, or we’ll have to pay extra to have them digitized!

 

Warm regards,
Richard Volturi
Location Manger (typo – should be Manager)
Paramont (typo – should be Paramount) Pictures

“Hallelujah!” in the Hallway

After twenty-five years of standing before crowds, talking about writing, you live with only two fears: one, at the end of the day you will discover arugula in your teeth; and two, your fly is open. It never occurs to you that someone might ask a question you cannot answer.

THE LESSON

Present participles and gerunds both end in -ingflying, fishing, eating—but flying, the participle, is a verb, and flying, the gerund, is a noun. Therefore a pronoun preceding a participle must be objective (me, you, her, him, it, us, them)—and him flying scares me—but the pronoun preceding a gerund must be possessive (my, your, her, his, its, our, their)—and his flying scares me. But how do we know if the -ing word is a participle or a gerund? First, know your purpose:

 

What do you think about [me] [my] raising the issue?

 

If who raises the issue is more important, use the objective pronoun—me. If raising the issue is more important, use the possessive pronoun—my.

 

Then listen to your ear:

 

We heard him his yelling “Hallelujah!” in the hallway.

 

For years I have admired him his skiing.

 

In the first we obviously need the objectivehim; in the second we obviously need the possessivehis. If you aren’t sure, opt for the possessive:

 

We truly appreciate you your choosing SilverStar Fidelity.

 

Treat nouns the same way: before a participle, place the noun itself; before a gerund, make the noun possessive:

 

Are you objecting to the [agent] [agent’s] going with me?

I’m standing in front of thirty-five bright new associates at a big East Coast law firm. They have just finished editing a two-page letter, circling typos, spelling errors, grammar slips, usage problems, homonym misuse, and punctuation faux pas—58 total. It’s an exercise in proofreading and paying attention before “sending.” As I review the mistakes and they check their edits, we come to this concocted sentence:

 

Although the government is not adverse to you entertaining foreign diplomats, you have to no where to draw the line.

 

Not that difficult to edit: adverse should be averse [See Tip: “Three Words Many People Misuse”]; and no should be know (duh, but these are the mistakes we make when we’re rushed and thinking about other things). When I finish pointing out those two mistakes and move to the next sentence, one of those bright associates raises his hand. “There’s something else wrong.” I have read that sentence five hundred times, and I know those are the only two mistakes. So I think, Arugula? Zipper? The associate says, “You should be your. Your entertaining. A pronoun preceding a gerund should be in its possessive form.” I can feel his confidence in this statement. Now I think, What sort of stupid grammar rule is this? The answer, I discover: one that has caused confusion for almost three centuries.

 

Quick refresher: Present participles and gerunds both end in -ingflying, fishing, entertaining—but entertaining, the participle, is a verb, and entertaining, the gerund, is a noun. Therefore, a pronoun preceding a participle must be objective (me, you, her, him, it, us, them)—not averse to you entertaining foreign diplomats—but the pronoun preceding a gerund must be possessive (my, your, her, his, its, our, their)—not averse to your entertaining foreign diplomats.

 

Fowler would have called what I had written a fused participle, an objective pronoun—you—glued to a present participle—entertaining. Fowler insisted that before an –ing word any good writer would always use the possessive:

 

Although the government is not averse to you your entertaining. . . .

 

So the associate was correct: before entertaining, I should have used the possessive pronoun your. But how do we know if the -ing word is a participle or a gerund? They’re the same word! According to the editors at Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, we are not the only ones confused:

 

“From the middle of the 18th century to the present time, grammarians and other commentators have been baffled by the construction. They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it, they cannot decide whether the possessive is correct. . . .”

 

Strunk and White—and most other grammarians—agree with Fowler: participles take the objective case; gerunds require the possessive. That’s the easy part. But Strunk and White add, “The difference between a verbal participle and a gerund is not always obvious. . . .” Amen, and if they don’t know, how can we?

 

  1. know your purpose:
  2.  

What do you think about [me] [my] raising the issue?

 

If who raises the issue is more important than raising the issue, use the objective pronoun—me. If raising the issue is more important, use the possessive pronoun—my.

 

  1. listen to your ear:
  2.  

We heard him his yelling “Hallelujah!” in the hallway.

For years I have admired him his skiing.

There is no reasonable expectation of any of them their showing up.

 

In the first we obviously need the objectivehim; in the second we obviously need the possessivehis; and the third makes no sense unless we use the objectivethem.

 

  1. if you aren’t sure, opt for the possessive:

 

The client objected to us our charging for the coffee and donuts.

We truly appreciate you your choosing SilverStar Fidelity.

 

Treat nouns the same way: If you intend the -ing word to be a participle, use the noun; if you intend it to be a gerund, make the noun possessive.

 

Are you objecting to the [agent] [agent’s] going with me?

 

Distinguishing between a present participle and a gerund—and the proper form of word to precede them—is a subtle problem; but good writers get it right, and smart people—like your clients and colleagues—notice.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go floss my teeth.