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Punctuate for Precision

By Kari Santos | Dec. 2, 2014

News

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2014

Punctuate for Precision

Strong, precise punctuation is essential to organized and clear legal writing.

Are you up for a test of your professional competence? It could lay you low if you don't pass, but you'll learn whether you're up to speed on skills essential to your practice. I'm not suggesting a reprise of the bar exam. What I have in mind is a punctuation test. Every lawyer really should warm to it; we are, after all, big believers in rules, so we should naturally want to master those that pertain to punctuation and grammar.

There is no expectation that lawyers should be grammarians. But we must understand and master the tools of composition that force us to refine our thinking, even if we don't want to advertise our punctuation skills. Punctuation controls writing. And lawyers who don't master it need to be aware that, as a result, their briefs will be less effective and could even look amateurish. Punctuation is a sort of test of our thinking process. If writing doesn't add up once it's been punctuated properly, it likely wasn't carefully thought through. If nothing else, we don't want sloppy punctuation to tempt readers to assume that our thinking is equally chaotic.

Lawyers who disregard the rules of punctuation are fools to indulge themselves that way. It's true that great but idiosyncratic writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and William Faulkner made of punctuation rules what they wanted and produced the effects they desired. And Gertrude Stein once declared that "punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded." But a lawyer's goal in writing should be, above all, to convey specific meaning with clarity.

The Basics
Grammarians might fight, helmets flashing, about which punctuation marks are the most important, but a safe list of the basics includes nine: comma, dash, hyphen, period, parenthesis, semi-colon, colon, space, and capital letter. To test your punctuation know-how, go through a piece of published writing of your choosing and assess and explain all the marks in it. You don't have to choose high-brow writing: Pretty much any decent piece of formally published writing should do because presumably it will have been checked by a copyeditor, a professional bulwark against linguistic chaos.

This exercise of studying why each mark of punctuation is deployed helps writers create two important habits: repeating the exercise every time they read someone else's work and carefully analyzing all punctuation choices in their own writing. Test-takers can increase the yield of their efforts by choosing a writer known for clarity or smooth prose - two usual suspects being George Orwell and John Updike, respectively. Better yet: Take your measure with writing by two Californians who won't let you leave it behind. Read Joan Didion's essay "At the Dam," and you will never look at the natural landscape (or Hoover Dam) the same way again. Or sample M. F. K. Fisher's "Young Hunger," and you'll think of it every time you feel hungry. Read all four writers to see four different ways to use punctuation to organize and distinguish an individual voice.

Your Blue Book
Once you've chosen a prose piece, engage with it, identify each punctuation mark, and explain why the mark was used as it was. Most will likely be commas, and it is good to be well grounded in the basic rules for using them. You would note, for instance, if testing yourself on this piece of writing, that the previous sentence contains a comma after the word commas. The reason? In any sentence that has two main clauses (with a subject and verb) joined by a coordinate conjunction (and), the clauses must be separated with a comma.

This is a self-administered test; you can even take it at home. The point is simply to learn whether your grounding in punctuation is up to snuff. If so, there can never be an excuse for briefs with muddled punctuation. If not, then education is called for, and the learning opportunities are already identified.

William Domnarski practices civil and criminal law in Southern California and has written four books, including Swimming in Deep Water, a collection of short essays about the legal profession.

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Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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