ABA Journal

Bryan Garner on Words

88 ABA Journal Bryan Garner on Words articles.

Contract ‘busts’: Trying to decipher provisions that literally make no sense

Some contractual provisions, perpetuated in deal after deal, make no literal sense. The problems are threefold: (1) whenever such a document is retyped, clerical errors are likely to occur; (2) the sameness of the party designations leads to cognitive difficulties for all readers—including the drafters themselves—because the only visual difference is the two-character suffix at the end; and (3) clients tend to resent such documents not just for their unreadability, but also for their appearing to be forms that the lawyer took little care in adapting.

Our shifting meanings: Test your knowledge of modern usage

In each question that follows, one choice is a misusage that wouldn’t pass muster with a good copy editor. See whether you can recognize the traditionally correct forms.

How do you say it? Try this quiz to evaluate your pronunciation skills

Over time, words can change in spelling, meaning and pronunciation. In this quiz, choose the pronunciation favored in the late 19th century through the 20th.

Some posthumous wisdom on writing from Robert Louis Stevenson

The novelist’s posthumous 1920 essay collection, Learning to Write, inspires an interrogatory with the ABA Journal’s legal writing advocate.

Strive for clarity and context in emails that address legal questions

There’s a widespread problem in the way junior lawyers answer questions by email. They tend to respond to moderately complex legal questions merely with answers—without explicitly repeating the question.

Can a town be a museum? A case may hinge on the precision of definitions

Does the usual meaning of a word carry over to a legal definition? The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on this question in a case involving sports hero Jim Thorpe.

Every lawyer a lexicographer: Defining words with clarity, brevity and practicality

Lawyers are constantly creating definitions, seemingly to a greater extent as time goes by. These definitions appear mostly in transactional practice (contracts, wills, etc.) but also in legislative and regulatory work (statutes and rules)—and even in briefs.

Booking the Dumpster: The tragedy of ‘deaccessioning’ books from university libraries

Book research shouldn’t be superseded by online research. Yet university libraries are unloading millions of unread volumes.

Law review editors missed a few, so we have this usage skills quiz for you

Law review editors do their best to comply with prevailing literary usage. In this quiz, the language hasn’t yet come close to accepting the “incorrect” choices as standard written English.

The incoherence of Serjeant Arabin, champion of judicial illogic

A look back at the nonsensical pronouncements from Sir Robert Megarry’s character William St. Julien Arabin, the all-time champion of judicial illogic.

George Campbell on eloquence, analogies and how to handle a hostile audience

“Eloquence is the art or talent by which the discourse is adapted to its end. All the ends of speaking are reducible to four: every speech being intended to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to influence the will.”

Writing vs. Good Writing: Make the languorous doldrums of reading disappear

“All styles are good,” Voltaire said, “except that which bores.” The good writer, in other words, frets a little about piquing the reader’s interest sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph—never descending into unremittingly dull stretches. The French even have a word for those dull stretches: longueurs.

How to start a sentence

Many writers mistakenly think it’s the beginning: They begin a disproportionate number of sentences with the grammatical subject, and they rarely depart from the subject-verb-object pattern. Boring legal writers create paragraphs of sentence after sentence beginning with a client’s or litigant’s name; interesting writers, by contrast, spice their prose with syntactic variety.

Of lists and tabs: Transforming transactional drafts to make sense

What’s the single most important sentence-level reform in transactional drafting? It’s a seemingly simple idea that would require massive retraining of lawyers. Here’s the proposition: With few exceptions, every list in a contract or other transactional instrument should be set off and indented (with a hanging indent, mind you).

Eye for Errors: Test your skills at editorial triage

Take the Editor’s Quiz: Give these briefs a minimalist edit—confining yourself to outright errors. In each sentence that follows, find one or more glaring errors and one or more venial errors.

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