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George Gopen weighs in on sentences starting with “so”

The other day I wrote this blog post about starting a sentence with “so.” That post was prompted by a Facebook posting by Stephanie West Allen, who now has followed up with her own interesting blog post on the same subject. Stephanie’s post features a link to a New York Times article and some thoughts on the subject by George Gopen.

Of course any good thing can be overdone. If you’re starting every other sentence with “so,” you may need to question your usage of it and impose a self-discipline of avoiding “so” as a sentence starter. But I hope this awareness doesn’t evolve into a superstition against this usage, like those against starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition. Around here, our official position remains that any word, no matter its part of speech, can be the first (or last) word in a sentence. “So,” as a conjunction or an adverb, can be the first word in a sentence. Just don’t overdo it.

So there.

A Facebook friend questioned “so” as a sentence starter. So I left this comment:

This isn’t a tic. “So” at the start of a sentence is usually a conjunction meaning “therefore.” It’s perfectly okay to start a sentence with a conjunction. And “so” as a conjunction is more concise than “therefore,” plus it doesn’t require a following comma, which makes the sentence flow more easily. So those who have a problem with “so” beginning a sentence need to explain themselves grammatically or linguistically.

Me, I’m thinking that starting a sentence with “so” instead of “therefore” is like starting a sentence with “but” instead of “however.” Not only okay, but often an improvement. What do you think?

On why many decisions should be unreported

The quotation of the day:

With respect to publication of the appendix, I respectfully dissent. The disposition reached in the opinion, save in two minor aspects fully enunciated in the published portion, essentially constitutes an affirmance of the jury verdict. More importantly, the opinion clearly does not satisfy the standards normally demanded for publication, see URCA 2-16.2, and should be approached accordingly by any reader. No new law has been established or altered. We have criticized no existing law. Neither party asserted, nor did we find, any apparent conflict of authority requiring resolution. Nothing within the opinion will affect established case law or legislative history. And, relevant only to the litigants, the matter scarcely engenders overwhelming or continuing public interest.

Forests have been felled, and untold law library shelves filled, in providing paper and space to indulge legal opinions that have little interest to anyone other than the adversarial parties. This is just such an opinion.

Barnco International Inc. v. Arkla, Inc., 684 So. 2d 986 (Hightower, J. dissenting from publication of opinion).

Nothing wrong with “that”

Every now and then, I come across someone with an aversion to that as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause. These folks strive to minimize the number of that’s in their writing, and do so by striking as many that’s as possible when editing.

These folks have good intentions. But they’re misperceiving the problem and, hence, applying the wrong solution.

My own style is, when in doubt, to use that or some other conjunction to introduce a dependent clause. The conjunction immediately informs the reader that what is to follow is a dependent clause. It thus makes the reader’s job easier because the reader then has less work to do in figuring out the sentence.

Sometimes if it’s short enough, a complex sentence doesn’t need a that to set off the dependent clause. Example: “She thinks he’s crazy.” But longer sentences with longer independent and dependent clauses usually need conjunctions like that to signal the dependent clause’s start and to show its relation to the rest of the sentence.

The problem with writing loaded with that’s is not that there are too many that’s, but that there are too many dependent clauses. If you’re bothered by a piece of writing with too many that’s as conjunctions, the solution is not to strike the that’s. All that does is make the writing harder for the reader to figure out. The sentences will be just as complex as they were before, only they will be harder to read, because they will lack the conjunctions to show the reader how the clauses relate to one another.  Instead, try one of the following.

First, examine the that-containing sentence to see whether it’s doing too much work. It may be that some thoughts expressed in a dependent that clause deserve their own free-standing sentences. I’m not saying that all writing should consist of single-clause sentences or that all complex sentences should be banished. But lawyers are sometimes prone to writing convoluted prose, adding clause upon clause until they end up with a five-line monstrosity. When you break up a monster like that into smaller sentences, some dependent that clauses become free-standing sentences. You make the writing easier to read, and incidentally you reduce the number of that’s.

Second, examine the that clause grammatically to see what it’s doing in the sentence, and try to come up with a phrase or a single word that will do the same thing. Usually the that clause is modifying a noun or a verb, meaning it is functioning as an adjective or an adverb. But we don’t always need a full-blown clause to modify a noun or a verb—that’s what adjectives and adverbs are for! For example, instead of writing “skies that are blue,” write “blue skies.”

Also in your writing toolbox should be prepositional phrases and participial phrases, which also do the work of modifying a noun or a verb, but do so more efficiently than a full-blown dependent clause. When you convert a dependent that clause into a participial or prepositional phrase, you shorten and simplify the sentence, and (again) incidentally eliminate the need for a that.

For an excellent explanation of the right way to minimize that’s, read C. Edward Good’s A Grammar Book for You and I ... Oops, Me!, starting at page 242.

A different (better?) way to begin a motion

The other day, I was writing a motion to quash a subpoena to appear at a trial in Florida. Most lawyers would begin such a motion something like this:

Comes now A.B., a non-party witness, and moves the Court to quash the subpoena served on him to appear at trial. A.B. brings this motion under Fed. R. Crim. P. 17(c)(2) and offers the following reasons in support of this motion ....

For reasons explained in this old blog post, I never use “Comes now” or any similar antiquated verbiage to begin a motion. So the first draft of the motion to quash went something like this:

A.B., a non-party witness, moves the Court to quash the subpoena served on him to appear at trial. A.B. brings this motion under Fed. R. Crim P. 17(c)(2) and offers the following reasons in support of this motion ....

That opening is concise, direct, and informative. But on reading it, I realized that it did nothing to persuade. So I thought, why not try something different? So I did. Here’s what I came up with:

On a motion made promptly, the court may quash or modify a subpoena if compliance would be unreasonable or oppressive. Fed. R. Crim. P. 17(c)(2). Non-party witness A.B. moves the Court to quash the subpoena served on him to appear at trial. A.B. resides in Louisiana. Compliance with the subpoena would be unreasonable and oppressive because the testimony the Government proposes to elicit from A.B. would be inadmissible .... Thus, requiring this Louisiana witness to travel hundreds of miles to appear at trial in Florida would serve no useful purpose.

I like this opening because its structure reminds me of how a child persuades a parent to let him or her do something. “You said that if I clean my room, I can go to the movies. I cleaned my room. So can I go to the movies?” (This is a child with an instinct for deductive reasoning.) But mostly I like it because the work of persuasion starts with the very first sentence.