Monthly Archives: November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving. Oh, and observe pronoun/antecedent agreement!

The week we discuss pronoun/antecedent agreement.  As you recall from earlier tips, pronouns take the place of nouns.  Consider the following sentence:  “The Scribe went to the Oregon coast, where he enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday.”  In that sentence, the pronoun “he” replaces the noun “The Scribe”—which, by the way, is the antecedent of “he.”

To avoid confusing the reader, a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in both number and gender.  For example, in the sentence “the boy met with his coach,” the pronoun (his) agrees in gender and number with its antecedent (boy).  It would clearly be incorrect to say “the boy met with her coach” or “the boy met with their coach.”  Got it?  Good!

This gets a bit more complicated when the antecedent noun is an indeterminate gender (e.g., player, attorney, judge).  Since it is generally considered sexist to use a male pronoun in such circumstances (“each player should meet with his coach”), some writers use either a plural pronoun (“each player should meet with their coach”) or a series of pronouns (“each player should meet with his or her coach”).

These are awkward solutions, and such gimmicks are just as likely to offend the reader as using sexist pronouns.  The better solution is to avoid the problem entirely by recasting the sentence to eliminate the pronoun, e.g., “players should meet with their coach.”

That is all for now … Happy Thanksgiving!

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The art of lengthy quotes!

Legal writing contains lots and lots of quotations.  Why is that so, you ask?  Well, it’s mostly because legal argument is based on precedent—so it helps to quote court decisions to show your judge that adopting your argument won’t get her reversed by a higher court.  Also, in a case involving a contract or a statute, it is often necessary to quote the exact contractual or statutory wording at issue.

But readers may choose to skip over lengthy quotations, especially those written in block-quote format.  In fact, the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says that he never reads block quotes and starts thinking about gardening or chickens when he sees block quotes in legal briefs:

You know what?  I don’t read block quotes.  I skip over them.  To me, it’s yada yada yada yada.  If there’s something good in there, I expect the lawyer to tell me what it is.  So the bigger the block quote, the less I’m likely to find what you’re looking for.  . . .  I now start thinking about something else.  I start thinking about another case, or probably I start thinking about my gardening.  Or my chickens. You know, I have chickens.

I suspect that the judge’s comment is hyperbolic.  But even if it is, it’s indisputably true that block quotes make reading a legal brief a tedious chore, and risk turning your judge’s mind to other things.  So what’s a writer to do?

The obvious answer is to avoid block quotes entirely.  But that’s not always possible.  The next best thing is to introduce the quotation with a lead-in that summarizes the quotation’s gist (which I did above with the Chief Judge’s quote about gardening and chickens).  Here are two examples—read them and consider which is more effective.

First example:

This case involves personal injuries plaintiff Sallie Smith suffered when she was severely bitten by defendant Kaleen Jones’s cat, Vincent, while Smith was a guest at Jones’s home.  Vincent, a tiger stripe kitty, repeatedly bit Smith after he found Smith eating from Vincent’s feed bowl.

The Oregon Supreme Court has held that a human being who is attacked while eating from a cat’s food bowl has no cause of action:

From ancient Egyptian times, the cat has been cherished by man.  Ancient petroglyphs in Egypt, the Pink Panther, The Cheshire Cat, The Cat in the Hat, and Orangey (the orange-and-black tabby that portrayed Holly Golightly’s cat in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s) have aptly symbolized the faithful service felines have rendered since time immemorial.  In view of this long history of devoted service, we are unwilling to hold that this state permits a tort action for damages occurring when a cat does what comes naturally:  protecting its food.  Therefore, we hold that the law recognizes no cause of action in favor of a human who is attacked while feeding from a cat’s bowl.  Garfield v. Arbuckle, 283 Or 201, 205 (1978).

Second example:

This case involves personal injuries plaintiff Sallie Smith suffered when she was severely bitten by defendant Kaleen Jones’s cat, Vincent, while Smith was a guest at Jones’s home.  Vincent, a tiger stripe kitty, repeatedly bit Smith after he found Smith eating from Vincent’s feed bowl.

The Oregon Supreme Court has held:

From ancient Egyptian times, the cat has been cherished by man.  Ancient petroglyphs in Egypt, the Pink Panther, The Cheshire Cat, The Cat in the Hat, and Orangey (the orange-and-black tabby that portrayed Holly Golightly’s cat in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s) have aptly symbolized the faithful service felines have rendered since time immemorial.  In view of this long history of devoted service, we are unwilling to hold that this state permits a tort action for damages occurring when a cat does what comes naturally:  protecting its food.  Therefore, we hold that the law recognizes no cause of action in favor of a human who is attacked while feeding from a cat’s bowl.  Garfield v. Arbuckle, 283 Or 201, 205 (1978).

The second example is less effective than the first example for three reasons.  First, the reader must wade into the quotation without any context (inviting thoughts about gardening and chickens).  Second, the writer leaves it to the reader to decide what the Supreme Court concluded about cat-on-people attacks.  And third, the writer has missed a chance to achieve credibility by accurately summarizing the court’s holding before offering the quotation as verification that the writer’s word can be trusted.

So next time you need to include a block quote, try introducing it with a short summary and see if your use of quotations becomes more effective.

That is all for now …

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