Category Archives: Punctuation

Possessive case names: to italicize or not italicize the apostrophe-s?

Legal writing involves rules large and small. Let’s consider a small one.

Suppose you’re writing a brief involving Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Eventually you want to discuss the case’s holding.

Is it Miranda’s holding?

Or is it Miranda’s holding?

In other words, when we write the possessive form of a case name, do we italicize the apostrophe-s?

Yes, my friends, we often do, but we should not. Indeed, the rule is that when any italicized word or phrase is made possessive by adding apostrophe-s, the apostrophe-s is not italicized. For example, it is correct to write “Gone With the Wind’s publication date is 1936” rather than “Gone With the Wind’s publication date is 1936.”

A small detail? Sure. But that type of attention to detail shows the court you pay attention to details.


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Don’t Be a Fool about Periods, Commas, and Quotation Marks

Grammar and punctuation involve many rules. As a general rule, The Scribe is no fan of rules. As Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it.” Yet, in matters of writing, some rules must be observed because the consequence of ignoring the rule is that the writer dons the jester’s hat and looks the fool.

The Scribe recently reviewed an appeal brief prepared by a leading member of Big Law, the kind of place that would have summarily rejected The Scribe and his humble pedigree. Given the firm’s reputation, it came as a surprise that the brief consistently violated one of the unyielding rules of punctuation: the comma and the period always go within the closing quotation mark.

The Scribe can find some sympathy for the brief’s hapless author because the rule makes no sense. This should be the rule:

If the comma or period is part of what is being quoted, it goes inside the quotation mark.
If it is not part of what is being quoted, it goes outside the quotation mark.

That would be a sensible rule. But it’s not the rule. Instead, the comma and the period always go inside the quotation mark, even when the original quotation does not include the comma or the period.

Some rules may be ignored. This isn’t one of them. Although it is sensible to disagree with the rule, it is not sensible to ignore it—that would be foolish.

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Possessing possessive company names …

Some business names appear in possessive form, such as “McDonald’s” and “Wendy’s.”  So … how do we make a possessive of such nouns that already appear in possessive form?

Technical writing rules for such things would suggest adding yet another apostrophe-s to the word, e.g., “You should try McDonald’s’s new succotash milkshake!”

Yikes!  Although defensible according to standard rules, such a bizarre spelling would probably shock and repulse your reader even more than the notion of milkshake tasting of lima beans and corn. Fortunately, there are better alternatives.

One solution is to avoid the problem by rephrasing, e.g., “You should try the new succotash milkshake at McDonald’s!”  And it is also perfectly acceptable to allow the company’s name to function as a kind of possessive, e.g., “McDonald’s succotash milkshake is my favorite!”  Either alternative is more pleasing (and tastier) to your reader than a McDonald’s’s succotash milkshake!

That is all for now …

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Why does naïve have two dots over the “i”?

So … what’s the deal with the double dots over the “i” in the word naïve—or over the “e” in Noël, Brontë, and Chloë?  Is it simply an umlaut, which is used to change the vowel sounds of certain German words and is placed over the first vowel (e.g., Jägermeister, München)?

No, dear readers, it is not an umlaut; instead, the double dot over the “i” and “e” is a dieresis.  Now you’re probably asking, “what the heck is a dieresis”?  Your humble Scribe will explain.

A dieresis is used in English over the second of two consecutive vowels—e.g., naïve, Noël, and Chloë—to show that the vowels are pronounced as separate sounds, not as a diphthong.  (A diphthong results when two consecutive vowels sounds are joined together to form one sound, e.g., deal, double, certain, pronounced.)  A dieresis is also used to show that a final vowel is not silent, and should be pronounced—such as Brontë.

In the past, English had lots more words that included a dieresis, including coöperation and poëm.  (Auto-correct really hates leaving a dieresis in those words, by the way.)  But as people have learned to correctly pronounce these—and other—words that formerly had a dieresis, the dieresis was dropped.

That is all for now …

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Punctuating introductory words and phrases.

If you’re like me, lots of your sentences begin with an introductory word or phrase.  It could be a single transition word (e.g., meanwhile), a phrase (e.g., on the other hand), or a dependent clause (e.g., if you’re like me).  But how do you punctuate that introductory word or phrase?

According to most authorities, the general rule is that an introductory word or phrase should be set off by a comma.  For example:

  • Without music, life would be a mistake.  (Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.  (Mark Twain)
  • The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.  (Bob Marley)
  • Meanwhile, the President of the United States has to contend with a possible invasion from Mars.

As with most rules of English, there is an exception to the general “use a comma” rule.  A very short introductory phrase—such as brief modifying phrases involving time (“Yesterday I went to a baseball game” or “In 1955 the Dodgers won the World Series for the first time”)—can appear with or without a comma.  The Scribe, however, prefers the use of commas with all introductory words or phrases, so as to avoid the seemingly arbitrary application of the rule (how long does the phrase need to be before a comma is needed?  Three words?  Four?).  This avoids comma-use drama—at least in this application.

That is all for now …

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We’ve got plenty to be thankful for (including hyphenated noun phrases)!

As we begin to enter the holiday season in earnest, many of us are reflecting on the things we are most thankful for.  I am thankful for my relatively sane family, my adorable dog, and, of course, hyphenated noun phrases.  What, you may ask, is a hyphenated noun phrase?  It is a phrase consisting of hyphenated words that create an adjective, followed by a noun.  For example: third-party defendant.  A hyphen combines the words “third” and “party” to form an adjective (“third-party”) that describes the noun, “defendant.”

These hyphenated noun phrases have a way of sticking with us.  In the same way that children add apostrophes in front of every single “s” they see once they learn about apostrophes, many of us overzealously hyphenate pairs of words that do not need hyphenation, presumably because we are used to seeing them hyphenated in a noun phrase context.  I have found that the most pervasive offender is “sign-up.”  The absolutely fine term “sign-up sheet” is such a familiar sight nowadays that I often find myself being incorrectly instructed to “sign-up” for something.

Let’s break this down: the two words, “sign” and “up,” are being combined with a hyphen so that they can form an adjective, “sign-up.”  That adjective then describes the noun, “sheet.”  Q: What kind of sheet is it?  A: It is a sign-up sheet.  However, were these two words to be used as a verb, there is no reason to hyphenate.  Therefore, I would sign up for an event on the sign-up sheet. Here are some other examples:

  • Be sure to eat every last bite of your mom’s well-done turkey.  She made sure it was well done because we all know what happens when it’s undercooked.  (“Well-done” describes “turkey.”)
  • Don’t bring up same-sex marriage at Thanksgiving dinner if discussing marriage between people of the same sex will lead to your auntie Ruth going off on a rant, thereby delaying dessert. (“Same-sex” describes “marriage.”)
  • Make sure your wine glass is more than half full during the holidays; a half-full glass is a recipe for disaster.  (“Half-full” describes “glass.”)
  • Your uncle Cleatus is a would-be lawyer; he would be a lawyer if he could properly hyphenate noun phrases, but alas, he cannot even spell his own name.  (“Would-be” describes “lawyer.”)  But he won his small claims case against that one landlord, so he could totally be a lawyer.  He bets it’s not even that hard.

One exception is that words ending in –ly are generally not hyphenated (see above use of “absolutely fine term”).  But thankfully, this general rule will serve you well:  when considering whether to hyphenate two words, ask yourself whether the words are forming an adjective to describe another word.   If yes, hyphenate.  If no, do not hyphenate.  Easy as pumpkin pie!

That is all for now …

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Declare independence from misused capitals!

Now that Flag Day is over and we are approaching the Fourth of July, the Scribe would like to pause to consider the meaning of this uniquely American holiday.  Independence Day means something different to everyone, including parades, fireworks, barbecues, baseball and beer.  But for the Scribe, Independence Day is, more than anything, a time to reflect on the mysteries of capitalization.

What was Thomas Jefferson thinking when he wrote this?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What’s with all those capitalized words?  Was Jefferson illiterate?

The answer, of course, is that the conventions governing capitalization have changed over time.  But unfortunately, some writers—and especially lawyers—still write as though it were 1776, randomly capitalizing words for no reason at all, as though they were channeling their own inner Benjamin Franklin.  But modern practice favors the frugal use of capitals.

Granted, some words require capitalization.  Here are some basic rules:

Capitalize proper names, e.g.,

  • Names of people (Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax);
  • Geographical names (Boston, Vermont, Crater Lake, France);
  • Institutions (University of Oregon, Washington Court of Appeals; United States Supreme Court);
  • Brand names (Nike, Motorola, Ford);
  • Holidays (Independence Day, New Year’s Day);
  • Awesome baseball teams (Dodgers, Red Sox);
  • Evil baseball teams (The Yankees).

Capitalize complete official titles of an officer or agency of the state (but don’t capitalize abbreviated titles).  Here are examples:

Capitalize:                                         Do not capitalize (exceptions noted):

1997 Legislative Assembly            the legislature

Attorney General                               the Attorney General (exception)

City of Eugene                                     the city

Court of Appeals                                the court

Department of Revenue                  the department

Governor McCall                                the Governor (exception)

House of Representatives              the House (exception)

Judge Jones                                           the judge

Oregon Court of Appeals                 the court

Oregon Supreme Court                    the Court (exception)

Secretary of State                               the secretary

Representative DeFazio                   the representative

Senate                                                      the Senate (exception)

Senator Smith                                       the senator

State of Oregon                                    the state

United States Supreme Court        the Court (exception)

Capitalize months and days of the week (but not seasons of the year), e.g.,

  • Stephen filed the motion on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.
  • Lee invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.
  • This case began in July 2013.

Capitalize the full title of a constitution, constitutional amendment, or clause of a constitution, e.g.,

  • Article I, section 9, of the Oregon Constitution (but “state constitution”)
  • First Amendment to the United States Constitution (but “federal constitution”)
  • Commerce Clause

(NOTE:  In the phrase “Oregon and United States constitutions,” don’t capitalize “constitutions,” because neither document’s full title is being used.)

Do not capitalize generic governmental terms, such as “federal” or “state,” as in “the state,” “state constitution,” and “federal constitution.”  But do capitalize those words when part of a full proper name, e.g.,

  • Federal Reserve Bank, State of Oregon

Also, don’t capitalize generic statutory names, such as “statute of frauds” and “statute of limitations,” or the words “chapter” or “section” (when referring to a specific chapter or section within a sentence), e.g.,

  • ORS chapter 10; Article I, section 9

In order to simplify things, here’s a general rule that will usually work: capitalization is not proper unless you’re referring to something specific—whether it’s a document, court, person, place, or whatever.  Thus,

  • The case is filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
  • The dispute is tied up in court.
  • Go tell it to the judge.
  • The case will be heard by Judge Litzenberger.
  • The trial is occurring at the courthouse.
  • The oral argument will take place on the second floor of the Pioneer Courthouse.

That is all for now ….

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