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January 2007
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March 2007

Don’t forego forgo Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

Here’s something I didn’t know until I read today’s installment of Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day:

forego; forgo.

Although a few apologists argue that these words are interchangeable, they have separate histories. And their meanings are so different that it’s worth preserving the distinction. “Forego,” as suggested by the prefix, means “to go before.” “Forgo” means “to do without; waive; renounce.”

“Forego” displacing “forgo” is a persistent problem — e.g.: “That realization not only helped Lavelle's brother but convinced her to forego [read ‘forgo’] a career as a social worker or psychologist and instead become a teacher.” “Challenged Students Get Special Help,” L.A. Times, 11 Apr. 1997, at B2.

Legal-writing symposium at Washburn Law School

If you’re going to be anywhere near Topeka, Kansas on March 9 or 10, then you may want to sign up for The Art of Advocacy: Writing to Win, a two-day legal-writing symposium sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Washburn University Law School. The program features a slew of judges from the federal and Kansas benches, plus several law-school professors and some practicing lawyers — something for everyone. The best feature of this seminar, though, is the price: it’ complimentary. But you must pre-register by telephone. Seating is limited, so first-come, first served.

The symposium is being held in conjunction with a 4-hour CLE program titled The Art of Advocacy Not-So-Secret Tips for Writing Effective, Persuasive, and Ethical Legal Briefs. The CLE, alas, is not free; the 4 hours’ credit (including 1 hour of ethics) will cost you $120. But the program looks worthwhile; the CLE speakers are all faculty members of Washburn Law School.

(A double hat tip to I.M. Kierkegaard, who not only scooped me on this item, but also has just returned to active blogging. Welcome back!)

Starting a sentence with a conjunction

Occasionally I come across an adult who still thinks it’s improper to start a sentence with a conjunction. Others think that starting a sentence with a conjunction is an innovation and should be done only sparingly, if at all. For those folks, I offer this passage from the King James Bible (circa 1611). I’ll put the passage in blue and the first word of each sentence in red.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:6–14.

By my count, there are nine sentences; eight of them begin with a conjunction.

A simple exercise

Here’s an interesting exercise from Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors. It’s almost too simple: copying passages, word for word, from admired authors. It sounds brainless, but after having done a couple, I can tell you that it isn’t. When I copy a passage, I’m forced to read it slowly, word by word. And when I do that, I notice things that I didn’t notice when reading the passage full speed.

Take, for instance, this passage by John Minor Wisdom that I posted three days ago. When I first read it, it struck me as exceptionally well written (at least for legal writing), and I liked Judge Wisdom’s use of an extended metaphor. Yesterday I decided to put it through the copying exercise, and I noticed things that I didn’t notice on first reading. For instance, the first three sentences are in passive voice; the last two are in active voice. Judge Wisdom deliberately used passive voice in the first three sentences because he wanted to focus attention on the knot, an inanimate object and the recipient of the action in the sentences. In the last two sentences, the focus shifts to the judges: what the trial judge did, and what the appellate judges are going to do. In describing the actions of actors, Judge Wisdom writes in the active voice. I didn’t notice Judge Wisdom’s careful use of voice on the first reading; it was only when I wrote the passage out in longhand that I noticed it.

If you’re interested in giving this exercise a try, follow these tips from Corbett and Connors:

  1. Spend no more than 15 to 20 minutes copying at any one time. If you go over 15 or 20 minutes, your attention will wander.
  2. Write the passage with a pencil or pen, not with a keyboard. Typing is too fast and too mechanical. Writing by hand forces you to slow down.
  3. Don’t spend too much time on one author. Otherwise you may find yourself aping that author’s style instead of developing your own.
  4. Read the entire passage before beginning to write, so that you have a sense of the whole before turning your attention to the word-by-word detail. Corbett and Connors recommend reading each sentence before copying it, and reading the entire transcription after you’ve finished.
  5. Write slowly and accurately, in the best penmanship you can manage. Again, the idea is to force yourself to slow down.
  6. Practice this exercise over an extended time. Transcribing one passage a day for a month will be more beneficial than transcribing several passages a day for a week.

All you need for this exercise, apart from a pen or pencil, is a decent notebook. If you’re trendy and have money to burn, you may opt for a Moleskine notebook. Me, I find that the good old-fashioned composition pad works nicely.

Just a passage I'd like to share with you

Readers of this blog will enjoy this opening passage from Campbell v. Eastland, 307 F.2d 478, 480 (5th Cir. 1962). Its author is Judge John Minor Wisdom. I offer it as proof that legal writing doesn’t have to be dull or unimaginative:

This civil action for a tax refund is tied in a tight knot with a criminal prosecution for fraud. With patience some formidable knots may be untangled. A famous one was cut. Here, the trial judge attempted to cut away the criminal strand. We think that it would have been better to have waited and then patiently untangled the knot.

Love yourself

Too often, lawyers who manage to develop good writing skills fail to apply those skills to their own marketing materials. Dan Binstock, writing for Counsel to Counsel, has noticed the same thing. Commenting about many lawyers’ web-site bios, he writes:

Attorneys are trained to be persuasive communicators. Especially in terms of persuasive writing. Especially litigators. But why do so many litigators have biographies that are completely unpersuasive about their skills as an attorney? Don’t you think it would make sense for attorneys to illustrate and highlight their persuasive skills when it comes to advocating for themselves? If associates can’t advocate for themselves or make a compelling case whey they have something to offer their clients, what impression does this leave potential clients who are reviewing the firm's website?

If you’ve worked hard to develop skills of persuasion, use them to market yourself. If writing is your chief persuasive skill, then write yourself a winning bio.

A brief that lives up to its name

Courtesy of Jerry Buchmeyer, via SW Va. Law Blog, here is the entire text of a brief in opposition to “motion to reinstate a ‘truly frivolous wrongful termination suit’ that the defendant had won in a jury trial”:

Brief in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Reinstatement

Plaintiff has got to be kidding.

Respectfully submitted,
Simpson & Moran
By Donald A. Van Sullehem
Attorneys for Defendant
Birmingham, Mich.