Bryan Garner on Words
How are your punctuation skills? Try this comparison exercise to find out
Let's take two examples from well-edited journals: Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic. Try punctuating this half-paragraph as a professional editor would:
One of these the author and policy analyst Diane Ravitch laments the lack of even handed coverage there are many philanthropists and politicians she told me who think our public education system stinks and that we should hand over all of the schools in the poorest neighborhoods to privately managed charters yet they seldom note that on average the charters dont produce better test scores than their publicly funded counterparts shouldnt a public broadcasting system at least address these contradictions
And now this:
What I saw at Charlotte resonated with what I thought good law schools should be especially in todays rapidly changing environment the institutions mission was uniquely student centered and practice ready even before those phrases became prevalent when law school applications dropped nationally my decision to retire from traditional deanship to form an educational technology group within InfiLaw is not unique in just the past year Jay Conison who has chaired the ABA Accreditation Committee and served as a reporter for the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education left another deanship to become the dean at Charlotte.
Plus or minus a couple of marks, it's fairly predictable how a professional editor applying agreed-on standards will approach those passages. So try your hand, and at the end of this column I'll show you how the passages actually appeared in print.
Meanwhile, though, let's ponder three punctuation problems.
OMIT OR INCLUDE?First, what about the serial comma? Every so often I receive mail from a reader of these pages who asks me how I could omit the serial comma when, in my books The Winning Brief and The Elements of Legal Style, I'm so staunchly in favor of it.
Good question. In The Winning Brief, I quote no fewer than 24 authorities—from the 19th century to the 21st—who insist that the comma before and or or (a, b, and c) promotes clarity, eliminates opportunities for ambiguity, and represents good public policy. All that is true. The only contrary authority is the Associated Press Stylebook, and that's the guide my editors here follow. They delete my serial commas. And since starting this column, I've learned that I don't have the clout to overrule them. It's as simple as that.
By the way, there's a mystifying fact about the serial comma in legal writing: Litigators almost universally use it, and transactional lawyers almost universally omit it. I've seen this phenomenon again and again in firm after firm. How to explain the divide, especially given that the ambiguities caused by omissions are far more serious in contracts than in briefs? I have no idea—but invite your own hypotheses.
Second, what is the preferred way of making the possessive of a noun (common or proper) ending in s? Should we say Williams' charge or Williams's charge? In the literary world, there's a divide: Nonjournalists prefer the extra s after the apostrophe (except with biblical and classical names); newspaper journalists (who, of course, follow AP style) prefer the apostrophe alone, without the extra s.
Aficionados of Strunk and White, The Chicago Manual and many other nonjournalism stylebooks prefer witness's statement, Congress's choices and Jones's house. They have traditionally made an exception for Aristophanes' plays, Socrates' death, Jesus' suffering and the like. Yet recently even that exception has started disappearing—so that s's is gradually becoming the rule for all names, however recent or ancient.
Again, though, my columns in these pages will reflect the AP Stylebook: hence David Boies' cases, not David Boies's cases (though I prefer the latter).
Finally, there's the question of plural possessives: How are they made? You have clients named Phil and Jocelyn Meyers. They are the Meyerses. Their house is the Meyerses' house.
The rule is that you pluralize first, then add the possessive apostrophe for plurals. Hence: the Sammonses' car, the Joneses' house, the Williamses' claims, the Stevenses' investments.
On this point you'll find no disagreement in the stylebooks: There's only one accepted way in Standard English to write a plural possessive.
You can, however, use a last name attributively to the singular. Just as a house owned by Frank and Helen Stevenson can be known as either the Stevensons' house or the Stevenson house, so the one owned by Bill and Margaret Sinz can be either the Sinzes' house or the Sinz house. The latter choice, when spoken, is likely to mislead listeners into thinking that you might be mistakenly saying "the Sinz' house" (a solecism).
Now let's return to our two passages that you've tried punctuating. The published versions, both from autumn 2014, reflect standard hyphenation of phrasal adjectives and standard use of commas. Here's how they appeared:
One of these, the author and policy analyst Diane Ravitch, laments the lack of even-handed coverage. There are many philanthropists and politicians, she told me, who "think our public-education system stinks and that we should hand over all of the schools in the poorest neighborhoods to privately managed charters." Yet they seldom note that on average, the charters don't produce better test scores than their publicly funded counterparts. Shouldn't a public-broadcasting system at least address these contradictions?
Harper's Magazine article by Eugenia Williamson
What I saw at Charlotte resonated with what I thought good law schools should be, especially in today's rapidly changing environment. The institution's mission was uniquely student-centered and practice-ready, even before those phrases became prevalent when law-school applications dropped nationally. My decision to retire from traditional deanship, to form an educational technology group within InfiLaw, is not unique. In just the past year, Jay Conison, who has chaired the ABA Accreditation Committee and served as a reporter for the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, left another deanship to become the dean at Charlotte.
Letter in The Atlantic by Ken Randall, dean emeritus of the University of Alabama
How close did you come? If you didn't do as well as you'd hoped, just know that there's much to learn (or relearn) about the art of punctuating well. Start paying closer attention to professionally edited journals—especially to hyphens, colons and commas.
If you'd like a book on the subject, I can recommend three that are devoted exclusively to punctuation: G.V. Carey's Mind the Stop, Eric Partridge's You Have a Point There and Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. (Punctuationists tend to be punsters.)
How serious should we be about punctuation in legal writing? It arises as an issue in thousands of lawsuits each year in which courts ponder the meaning of statutes and contracts. And in at least two cases—one in the U.S. Supreme Court and one in the House of Lords—commas have played a crucial role in the lives of criminal defendants. As Justice William Johnson declared in 1818, "Men's lives may depend upon a comma."
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "How Are Your Punctuation Skills? Try this comparison exercise to find out."
Bryan A. Garner (@bryanagarner) is the president of LawProse Inc. He is the author of many books on legal writing and is editor-in-chief of the much-expanded 10th edition of Black's Law Dictionary.