An Ineffable Impression to Start the Day

Most writing instructors at most law schools do their students a real disservice by requiring them to do certain things the wrong way. For instance, they require their students to violate a rule regularly taught by 8th-grade English teachers, which is to use (most always) the serial comma. This is particularly unfortunate, as most of what most attorneys write requires great precision, and failure to use the serial comma too often results in ambiguity.

Consider the following sentence:

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The rule requires tutors, teachers and coaches who are present to file their recommendations with the board.

According to most style guides, a serial comma should be set after the word 'teachers.' This makes it clear that the qualifier 'who are present' refers to tutors, teachers, and coaches, rather than just coaches.

Let's suppose the intent was for the qualifier to apply to all tutors, all teachers, but only those coaches who are present. In that case, it's not enough to just omit the serial comma, because the meaning of the sentence would still be ambiguous. Attorneys would wind up arguing about whether or not the qualifier referred to all tutors, or only those tutors who are present, and a court would find itself functioning as an 8th-grade English teacher.

Best it would be to rewrite the sentence so it's meaning is clear to all:

The rule requires all tutors, all teachers, and only those coaches who are present to file their recommendations with the board.

Precision and clarity: that's why 8th-grade English teachers tell their students to use the serial comma. That's why style guides (excepting those that apply only to journalists writing for newspapers) advise writers to use the serial comma. That's why book and magazine publishers, as well as professional writers and editors, use the serial comma.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, you might want to give a read to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a guide to punctuation that became a bestseller in the U.K.

If your success is influenced by your mastery of things like punctuation and grammar, you'll certainly want to have ready access to The Elements of Style. And if you want to do well, you'll give that slender volume far more consideration than most law school writing instructors.

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Posted in Sport Post Date 12/14/2016


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