As a third-year associate, I
was supervising a team polishing a monolithic, multi-issue brief that had taken several attorneys weeks to draft. The evening
before we planned to file, I sent the near-final draft to a first-year so that she could
check the citation form. Having composed
most of the citations myself, I was confident
that there would be few, if any, corrections.
The brief landed back on my desk,
drenched in red ink. Surely this was wrong!
She had abbreviated the first words in the
case names! You never abbreviate the first
words in the case names! I was incensed.
This young attorney obviously did not know
proper citation form, and now I would have
to cite-check the brief again myself.
Fortunately, before I marched down to
that other attorney’s office to inform her of
her error, I secured a copy of what was then
the latest edition of The Bluebook. Much to
my chagrin, she was right and I was wrong;
since my law-school graduation, The Bluebook had done a 180. What had
been prohibited was now mandatory: The Bluebook now required us to
abbreviate the first word in a case name.
I learned my lesson: Writing rules and conventions—and especially
citation rules—evolve over time, and it behooves me to pause and check
before I get too indignant about someone else’s “error.” (The experience
also fostered my skepticism about judging any attorney’s merit by
whether she has mastered the latest nuances of citation form, especially
because there have been multiple editions of The Bluebook and the ALWD
Manual in the years since I purchased my first ones).
What other “errors,” then, are not really wrong? The exam-
ples far exceed the length of this column, but here are two I
Sadly, one of the only grammar rules I could actually cite by
name is now obsolete: Splitting infinitives is now permissible.
A split infinitive is when someone puts another word—most
often an adverb—between the “to” and the bare infinitive
form of the verb. Perhaps the most famous split infinitive is the
mission of the Starship Enterprise: “to boldly go where no one
has gone before.” In that case “to go” is the full infinitive, and
the adverb “boldly” splits it.
In Latin and many other Romance languages, where the
infinitive is one word, you cannot split the infinitive. Thus, rea-
soned 19th-century grammarians, you should not be able to
do so in English, either.
It is easy enough to avoid splitting the infinitive; you just
move the offending adverb before the “to” or after the bare
The Rules, They Are
THE LEGAL WORD by Susie Salmon
Susie Salmon is Assistant Director
of Legal Writing and Associate Clinical
Professor of Law at The University of
Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.
Before joining Arizona Law, she spent
Starting a sentence with
nine years as a commercial litigator at
large firms in Tucson and Los Angeles.
infinitive, so that the Star
Trek directive becomes
“boldly to go where no
one has gone before,” or
“to go boldly where no
one has gone before.”
moving the adverb
changes the meaning or
makes the sentence awk-
ward. For example:
“Moose decided to
quickly shred Susie’s
shoe while Susie was in
the shower.” “Quickly”
splits the infinitive “to
shred.” You could
change this to “Moose
decided quickly to shred
Susie’s shoe,” but then
your reader may think
the decision, rather than
the shredding, was quick. Or you could say
“Moose decided to shred Susie’s shoe quick-
ly,” but the meaning is still a bit muddled.
(Let’s not even discuss the mess that is
“Moose decided to shred quickly Susie’s
shoe.”) Clarity, accuracy and readability are
our ultimate goals, and sometimes splitting
the infinitive is the best route.
“and” or “but”
My teachers admonished never to begin a
sentence with “and” or “but.” After all, conjunctions are for linking elements within a
sentence. The beginning is no place for an
But sometimes starting a sentence with a
conjunction provides emphasis or impact.
For centuries, the best writers have flouted
this “rule,” and you can too. Like anything
you use for effect, though, that opening conjunction loses effect with overuse. Deploy it
Our language—like much in our lives—is
evolving rapidly, which can be both exciting
and confounding. Let’s set high standards for
our writing but not rush to judgment when
an otherwise effective piece seems to violate
Welcome to the re-introduction of a favorite feature on
good legal writing. If there are writing topics you’d like
to see covered, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
I learned my
evolve over time.