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January 2012
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Blogroll maintenance

Today I did some long-overdue maintenance of my legal-writing blogroll. If you haven’t browsed the selections there, why not have a look? It’s just to the left, right under “Recent Comments.” Relatively recent additions include the following:

  • Mark Adler. Mark is from England. He retired as a solicitor a few years ago and now lives in in the southern French mountains. His web site “is intended for lawyers and others (including lawyers' clients) who are interested in legal language; but it includes some items which deal with language in general for those who want a wider perspective.” Among the recent additions to his Comment page is Stressful Ambiguity, a short piece demonstrating how sentences that are clear when spoken can become ambiguous when written.

  • Sentence first, billed as “an Irishman’s blog about the English language.” Its proprietor is Stan Carey, who describes himself as “a scientist and writer turned editor and swivel-chair linguist.”

  • Appellate Record, where Texas appellate lawyer Kendall Gray writes entertainingly about legal writing.

Watch your language.

In a recent decision, the U.S. Fourth Circuit reminds us to avoid disrespectful language in our briefs:

Finally, we feel compelled to note that advocates, including government lawyers, do themselves a disservice when their briefs contain disrespectful or uncivil language directed against the district court, the reviewing court, opposing counsel, parties, or witnesses.... Unfortunately, the government’s brief is replete with such language: it disdains the district court’s “abrupt handling” of Appellant’s first case ...; sarcastically refers to Appellant’s previous counsel’s “new-found appreciation for defendant’s mental abilities,” ...; criticizes the district court’s “oblique language” on an issue unrelated to this appeal ...; states that the district court opinion in Jones “revealed a crabby and complaining reaction to Project Exile,” ...; insinuates that the district court’s concerns “require[ ] a belief in the absurd that is similar in kind to embracing paranormal conspiracy theories,” ...; and accuses Appellant of being a “charlatan” and “exploit[ing] his identity as an African-American,” .... The government is reminded that such disrespectful and uncivil language will not be tolerated by this court.

U.S. v. Venable, No. 11-4216 n. 4 (4th Cir. Jan. 18, 2012). The lesson: If you think you have rapier wit, keep it sheathed when writing your brief.

(Hat tip to Martin Stern.)

Judge Selya has fun with vocabulary.

They say that good writers have a way with words. Judge Bruce Selya of the federal First Circuit has a way with obscure words. And thank goodness for that. Although I advocate a preference for plain writing and simple words, plain language is not the first commandment. The first commandment is to be true to yourself—to express your self. (Two-word phrase intentional.) Judge Selya does that, which makes his writing a joy to read.

The other day, Jim Rusten wrote me about a recent opinion by Judge Selya. Jim compiled a list of interesting words in the decision, which you can access here. To read the decision itself, click here for the HTML version, or here for the PDF version.

Prior posts about Judge Selya’s writing are here and here.

Writng advice from the invisible gorilla

Dan Simons, of Invisible Gorilla fame, has a useful list of writing tips, including an editing checklist. You can find a link to Dan’s tips here. It’s meant for scientific writing, but it can be adapted to any form of expository prose. Just remember that Dan’s tips are general guidelines, not absolute rules.

For those unacquainted with the invisible gorilla, take this video test.