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A Word, Please: Keeping your grammar out of the headlines

June 24, 2011|By June Casagrande

When people tell me they don’t care about grammar and punctuation, I get it. Some people have more urgent priorities.

If a widower is working full-time while caring for an ailing parent and raising three kids, who am I to tell him that he needs to make time to learn about apostrophes?

But that doesn’t apply to lawyers. For an attorney, basic grammar skills can mean the difference between performing well on the job and ending up a punch line in newspaper headlines.

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On June 15, the Springfield News-Leader reported that Anissa Bluebaum, an attorney representing convicted sex offender Alison Peck in a civil suit against Peck’s former probation officer, had some problems with her grammar. If the attorney representing the probation officer is to be believed, Bluebaum’s punctuation skills in particular are bad enough to render her whole argument an unintelligible mess.

A petition Bluebaum filed contained references to “defendants” as well as “defendant’s” in contexts that may have made it unclear whether she was referring only to probation officer Rebecca Martin or to both Martin and her brother, who is also involved in the case.

“Defendant does not know whether plaintiff is just not familiar with the use of possessives or whether plaintiff was referring to merely one of the two defendants,” a motion document submitted by Martin’s attorney, Richard Crites, said. “Is this merely the poor usage of the English language by plaintiff's attorney? We have no earthly idea which is the case.”

That wasn’t the only problem with Bluebaum’s writing. In fact, Crites found enough problems to fill eight pages with questions about both the case and Bluebaum’s competency.

There are two valuable lessons here, one on possessives and one on unclear antecedents.

Of the two, unclear antecedents are easier to avoid. In fact, I can tell you how to sidestep this problem in just two words: Pay attention. As the name suggests, unclear antecedents are just words, usually pronouns, that refer to something else but leave it unclear what.

Look at this passage. “The dog wagged its tail. It was short and brown.”

What was short and brown? The dog or its tail? From the grammar we can’t quite be sure. So this is an example of an unclear antecedent.

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