Monday, June 24, 2013

Who Cares About an Oxford Comma?

Anyone who knows me knows I am a strong advocate for the use of serial commas.  A case currently pending before the Supreme Court of Georgia is yet another example of why legal writers should always use serial commas.
The Georgia Open Records Act contains a provision that exempts records from public access “disclosing an economic development project prior to a binding commitment having been secured, relating to job applicants, or identifying propriety hiring practices….”  
The legislature passed the provision specifically to prevent an autoworkers’ union from obtaining access to certain training materials.  The union, however, is claiming the language should be read to permit access to training and applicant records once the state secures a binding commitment (essentially reading out the comma before "or").  
The state (I believe correctly) argues the statute creates three categories of exempt records: (1) those disclosing an economic development project prior to a binding commitment; (2) those relating to job applicants; and (3) those identifying proprietary hiring practices, training, skills, or other business practices.  This reading protects the applicant information and hiring and training materials from disclosure even after a binding commitment has been secured.
As Chief Justice Nahmias recognized at oral argument in the case, the two-category reading of the Act proposed by the union would defy all accepted rules of grammar and essentially mean the legislature and the governor didn’t know or understand the rules of grammar when they passed and signed the law.
Oral argument was held on June 17, 2013, so a written opinion won’t be issued for several months. The case is Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia Inc. v. Coleman.  An article about the case can be found here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Show, Don't Tell

A good legal writer doesn’t tell the audience why the client should prevail—the writer shows the audience why.  This is a very hard concept to teach, but Justice Pfeifer of the Supreme Court of Ohio nails it in his dissent in State v. Willan, No, 2012-0216, 2013 WL 2631542 (Ohio June 11, 2013).

Justice Pfeifer and the majority disagree about whether an Ohio statute is so ambiguous it cannot be enforced.  To highlight the ambiguity of what he refers to as “24 lines of unrelenting abstruseness consisting, remarkably, of the sum total of 307 words and a mere one period,” Justice Pfeifer drafts his own 307-word, single sentence dissent. Id. at *4.  He compares the single period in the statute to a “lone sentinel facing odds similar to that of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae,” and determines the statutory ambiguity is a “circumstance up with which we should not put.” Id.  I cannot do this dissent justice by describing it here—you simply must read it for yourself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ensure You Know the Difference

Insure versus ensure—These words are not synonyms and do not share a common meaning. 

What’s the easy way to remember the difference?  Insure always pertains to insurance.  Ensure, on the other hand, means to make certain that something occurs.  Thus,

The lawyer ensured that he would be protected in the event of a malpractice claim by insuring his practice.

This sign is wrong.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Are Apostrophes Necessary?

There’s nothing like an old-fashioned grammar nerd debate.  This one, at Slate, is over apostrophes and whether they remain necessary. 

On one side of the debate are John Richards, the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society (yes-there is such an organization), and Lynne Truss, of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame, who has stated: “Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation.  No matter that you have a Ph.D. and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

On the other side—George Bernard Shaw, teenagers everywhere, and the creators of the Kill the Apostrophe website (yes—it too exists), who believe the apostrophe “serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.” (Note the intentional removal of the apostrophe from “don’t.”)  

Needless to say, I—like every other legal writing professor I know—think apostrophes are necessary.  The whole story is worth a read.