Legal Writing Tip: Keep a Usage Guide Handy

Savannah Blackwell

legal-writingThe art of persuasion is about the effective management of words. Speaking or writing compellingly requires a strong command of language. Lawyers would do well to learn to use it precisely and accurately.

With that goal in mind, don’t be afraid to reach regularly for a dictionary or a thesaurus. The latter is especially handy when you have a word in mind, but sense there’s a better one out there.

But what should you consult when you can’t remember when to say “consist of” as opposed to “consist in”? (The former introduces concrete, material things, while the latter introduces ideas.)

What should you do when can’t recall whether an unfortunate soul has to run a gauntlet or a gantlet? (One “runs” the latter; the former is a glove thrown down as a means for challenging an opponent to a duel.)

That’s when you turn to arguably the most useful and definitely the most overlooked desk reference, that is, a usage guide.

Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d Edition, 2009) is billed as the largest and most current guide to American usage. As the author explains in the beginning, the book contains two types of entries: (1) word entries (discussing “a particular word or set of words”); and (2) essay entries (addressing “larger questions of usage and style”).

The essay entries are interspersed alphabetically with the word entries. So, for example, you’ll find a mini treatise on use of “adjectives” a few entries after the one explaining when to use “adduce” (versus “educe” or “deduce”).

Garner is well aware that usage changes over time, and that what was once considered wrong may be considered acceptable at this point. For many entries, he offers the reader an assessment of the current conventional wisdom. Stage 1 means the newly emerged usage is still considered flat-out wrong, i.e., “rejected.” Stage 2 means it is still “widely shunned.” Stage 3 indicates the form has become “commonplace,” “but is still avoided in careful usage.” Stage 4 means it is “ubiquitous,” “but [] opposed on cogent grounds by a few die-hard snoots.” And Stage 5 means, “fully accepted.” Garner marks what he considers to be an inferior use of a particular word or phrases with an asterisk.

Garner has his detractors, but no one can say he is not a scholar of the English language. His guide is drawn from a truly massive body of published writings on usage. After explaining his methodology and principles in the preface, he tells the reader, “No usage critic is infallible—certainly not I. But be assured that I have tried to know the literature in the field, to examine the great quantities of linguistic evidence, and to use my best judgment as a professional writer and editor.”

As for the last part, so should we all.

About the author: 

Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She became a licensed California attorney in 2010 and specializes in legal research and writing. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF.