Monday, July 30, 2007

Prepositions, ending with--understanding Churchill

As a commenter pointed out, Winston Churchill is often quoted as making this statement about the rule against ending sentences with prepositions:

“This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Or some other version worded slightly differently. (Note: the original quotation probably used "arrant," meaning utter or notoriously bad, not "errant," meaning wandering off, fallible.)

Churchill's statement is sometimes misunderstood. In fact, I've seen it quoted as support in favor of the rule against sentence-ending prepositions on a few occasions--once by a lawyer in the Texas Bar Journal.

But Churchill was being ironic:
When Winston Churchill was chastised for ending a sentence with a preposition, he wittily responded. “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Churchill’s retort illustrates that attempts to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition can be labored and ludicrous.
David Angell & Brent Heslop, The Elements of E-mail Style 79–80 (Addison Wesley 1994).

You see, the more natural-sounding sentence, which Churchill preferred, would have been:

"This is the type of arrant pedantry I will not put up with."

But in an ironic jab at his tormenter, he avoided the sentence-ending preposition with what, I hope you'll agree, is a stilted and silly construction.

Prepositions--ending with, MORE

I think it's okay to end sentences with prepositions, especially to avoid a stilted or stuffy construction. When I posted that opinion and some before-and-after examples, I got some good comments.

Two commenters wanted to rewrite even my preposition-ending sentences. Both offered good revisions, though both called their revisions "better." This means the idea that we should not end sentences with prepositions still has a rule-like status. You see, ending with a preposition may be okay, but not doing it is even better.

My commenters, I suspect, are real lawyers, practicing law. This is one of those times when I'm glad I'm not a real lawyer; no judges or supervisors scrutinize my writing. I live in academia, writing what I want, how I want, when I want. I'm lucky. So when real lawyers ask me about the rule, I usually tell them that to be safe, don't end sentences with prepositions.

In truth, I think ending with a preposition is fine. I assert there's never been a rule against it. Garner calls the rule "spurious" in Garner's Modern American Usage at 633. And I do it whenever I want.

Besides, I think in one case, my preposition-ending sentence was still better than my commenters' revisions. You judge:

1. When I consulted Black's Law Dictionary, I could not find the word I was seeking.
1. When I consulted Black's Law Dictionary, I could not find the word I wanted.

1. When I consulted Black's Law Dictionary, I could not find the word I was looking for.

No big deal, but mine is more colloquial, a trait I like and one I'd like to see in more legal writing.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New book: The Modern Rules of Style

I recommend The Modern Rules of Style by Paul Marx. Published by the ABA.

Professor Marx has written a superb little book for lawyers. It's a thoughtful guide to sophisticated techniques for making your sentences work better. In fact, it might have been subtitled "Advanced Sentence-Writing for Lawyers."

Do we--the lawyers--really need help writing sentences? Yes, we do, because so much depends on our sentences: money, rights, property, and more. And so many people scrutinize our sentences: opposing counsel, clients, judges, and our bosses. With so much on the line and with so many audiences, we need to write better sentences than lawyers historically have. We need more training and more tools. This book will help.

But even though I can rightly described the book as sophisticated and advanced, it is straightforward, too. The guidance Professor Marx gives is written in the kinds of sentences he advocates: planned and polished yet crisp and direct. He follows his own advice about parallelism, modifiers, and noun clauses. He recommends and then uses the colon, the semicolon, and the dash, and he uses them well. You can, too, because you will learn a great deal from the many examples. But you can and should imitate Professor Marx's is writing style, too. All of us should.

URL for --not this blog


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Monday, July 02, 2007

Scholarly writing: Posner's opinion on its style

"Scholars are self-selected into an activity that requires them to write, although not to write well (which means, however, that good writing is not highly valued in most scholarly fields)."

Richard A. Posner, The Little Book of Plagiarism 80 (Pantheon Books 2007).

Schiess says:

Most scholarly legal writing is not bad; it's just not good. Mediocre, I call it.

And as I have said before, I am often disappointed in the quality of writing published by legal-writing teachers. Too often mediocre, I say.