Tip 9 - Check your punctuation.

In my experience teaching legal writing, I have often asked native and non-native speakers why they have chosen to punctuate a sentence a certain way -- whether it is a bunch of commas thrown in or the common avoidance of the semi-colon. The answer is quite often 'It just felt right' or 'It looked like it needed it.'

But punctuation is neither a feeling or a visual art. Fairly strict rules govern punctuation and not following these rules can lead to ambiguity and even change the intended meaning of your text.

In the following example, see how the omission of just a simple comma impacts the legal meaning of this sentence:

The millionaire wrote in his will that his estate should go to Marie and David Hellen, Axel and Valerie Schmit, Athena and Niko Kalas and all their lovely grandchildren.

By omitting a comma after Kalas the only lovely grandchildren who will be receiving part of the estate are those belonging to Athena and Niko. By adding a comma after Kalas, the meaning changes and the grandchildren of all three couples will inherit from the millionaire.

Moreover, carefully placed commas can denote whether a clause in the sentence is restrictive or non-restrictive. A restrictive clause is vital to the meaning of a sentence while a non-restrictive clause may add something, but if that clause is removed, the meaning of the sentence would not change. Nonrestrictive clauses are placed between commas, while no commas surround restrictive clauses.

Compare the following examples:

1. An associate, who just joined the firm, will be working this case.

2. An associate who has trade law experience will be working this case.

In the first example, the commas surround the clause who just joined the firm, thereby making it non-restrictive. This means that the recent arrival is an added fact but not defining who will work the case. The second example is without any commas and denotes quite the opposite; the clause who has trade law experience is restrictive, and so only an associate with this particular experience can work on the case--no other.

Also keep in mind how punctuation can be used in persuasive legal writing. If you wish to really highlight a point, for example, using a colon can be a great tool.

The motive for the defendant's crime is clear: revenge.

Dashes can also bring attention to words or clauses within or at the end of a sentence, but they should be used sparingly as they are considered more informal.
Further information sources

The following information sources are useful whenever you want to check your punctuation:

Purdue University's Writing Lab. To review the complete rules on punctuation, go to the Writing Lab's online page for punctuation. It provides both a great overview of the general rules and practice quizzes to test your progress.

Struck & White's Elements of Style. This book offers a fast and simple overview if you need to check on a punctuation point quickly.

Reference.com. There are some differences between US and UK punctuation rules and this site highlights not only those differences in punctuation, but also grammar and spelling too.

Previous Tip - Avoid nominalizations.

Next Tip - Be a rebel and break the rules when necessary.


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