Does your blog sound modern or dated? Do you find it difficult to get potential clients to relate? Believe it or not, some of those tried-and-true, old-fashioned writing laws could be part of the problem.
Lawyers who write often pride themselves on the strength of their writing. Many believe that a formal tone helps them to convey authority and expertise. But some of the formal language rules that we were taught in law school can interfere with potential clients’ ability to relate.
Even renowned legal writing expert Bryan Garner endorses a more casual writing style. In a recent ABA Journal article, “Learn the Fundamentals of Writing First–Experiment Later”, Garner told lawyers to “Kick These Edicts”:
“You mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction, such as And, But or Nor.”
This, and several other “laws” Garner reviews aren’t really requirements for good grammar. They are stylistic guidelines that help young writers build strong foundations to good writing. Garner says:
“We teach kids not to begin with And or But precisely because they tend to begin all their sentences that way (especially And), and they need to be weaned off the habit. “
Starting an occasional sentence with But or And can make an impact. Even Supreme Court justices have been known to break this “law” from time to time. But doing it too much can be ineffective.
Remember that But and And are transitional words. In formal grammar, they are used to connect two ideas within the same sentence. When you start several sentences with these words it connects those ideas. Do that too many times in a row and you create a run-on paragraph.
“You should never begin a sentence with Because.”
This grammar “rule” was never true. There has always been a proper grammatical way to start a sentence with “Because.” However, most language learners don’t do it correctly. Because most young writers do not know how to convey a complete thought in this way, they are simply taught to avoid it.
“You mustn’t write a one-sentence paragraph.”
A one-sentence paragraph can be particularly effective in making a point, especially when blogs are used on mobile devices.
“You should never use first person.”
When it comes to blogging and web content, the decision between first person and third person can often have more to do with the image you are trying to project than with any formal grammar “rules.” First person content (“We are attorneys who…”) can make you and your firm seem personable and easy to relate to. Third person (“The attorneys at Smith & Jones…”) sounds more established and formal.
In the context of blogging, first person can also be used to distinguish opinion from established law. This can be especially useful to set apart one attorney’s perspective from the firm’s position. However, law bloggers should be careful not to include statements that the firm cannot support or that run contrary to company policy.
“You mustn’t end a sentence with a preposition.”
This “rule” is a personal favorite. My mother, who graded high-school English papers for years used to say the rule was one “up with which she would not put!” When you have to contort a sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition, you don’t sound professional. You simply confuse your readers.
“You mustn’t split an infinitive.”
Garner says “those who believe this often don’t know what an infinitive is.” A split infinitive is when you put an adverb between “to” and a verb. For example “Judges tend to really frown on shorts in the courtroom.” Objections to this sentence structure come from Latin grammar. While many split infinitives can be rearranged (“Judges really tend to frown…”), sometimes that also subtly changes the meaning or emphasis of the sentence or make it sound clumsy. You may want to generally avoid split infinitives, but you be careful that the rule doesn’t interfere with readers understanding your point.
You should never use since for because or while for although.
Transition words like since, because, while, and although each have their own nuance. As with any language choice, you should be precise in selecting between them. But as with several other grammar “rules” this one has more to do with tone than with proper speech. Since many lawyers want their blogs to sound conversational, the softer versions of these transition words is often the better choice.
“You must never use contractions.”
Contractions also become necessary when trying to write conversationally. As with split infinitives, using “cannot” and “would not” as opposed to “can’t” and “won’t” will subtly shift your meaning and may make your statements sound more absolute than you intend. Writing a blog entirely without contractions will likely make you seem stuffy or arrogant. By using contractions you can improve readability, and make your writing more accessible to potential clients.
There are many writing rules that are important to clear online writing. But while good grammar is important, sticking too close to the formal “rules” we lawyers learned in law school may turn readers, and judges, off to what we really have to say.
Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She ghostwrites blogs, web content, and legal briefs for lawyers and small businesses. If you need help creating the right tone for your blog, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.