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Writing is, of all arts, universally admitted to be that which is most useful to society. It is the picture of the past, the regulator of the future, and the messenger of thought.—Anon.

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American English Generally

Punctuation

  • In American English, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. This is about readability, clarity, and neatness. It has to do with typesetting and best practices - and, like spelling, marks you as an intelligent and knowledgeable typist.
  • Trailing commas, periods, colons and semi-colons take the bold or italics format of the preceding word, but are never underscored.

Spacing

  • In text using a variable-spaced typeface, all words are separated by single spaces, never by two spaces, and this includes the spacing after colons and periods. This ain't your uncle's Correcting Selectric II (the best typewriter ever made) or Mag Card (the first widely-used word processor).

Capitalization

  • Unless every letter in the clause is capitalized, do not capitalize prepositions (by, with, of, from, to, etc.) or conjunctions (and, or, that, etc.).
  • Don't capitalize just for the hell of it, or to impress people. Unexpected capitalization comes across as "I'm really important" or "I've got a secret" - and is more likely to irritate than impress your reader. Unless a word genuinely demands to be capitalized (as with proper nouns and proper names), leave it be.

Columns of Numbers

  • Columns of numbers should be decimal-aligned in all cases. If the numbers are currency, one currency symbol is placed at the top and, if the column is totaled at the bottom, one currency symbol is used for that total. Marking every figure with a dollar sign just creates more clutter on the page and extra work for the reader. Where horizontal space allows, bottom totals should be placed one column to the right. The dollar signs should, one hopes obviously, also be aligned.

Quotation Marks

  • Use traditional, book quotes instead of straight quotes. Traditional quotes are typically referred to these days as "curly" quotes. And although they appear in every professionally typeset publication in the U.S., most people seem to think there is some magic trick to understanding them. This may in part be due to modern word processing software, which ships with default settings for straight or "ambidextrous" quotes and which do not take into account the difference between leading apostrophes and opening single quotes.
‘single quotes,’
“double quotes,”
leading ’postrophe

Me, Myself and I

  • If you're doing it, it's "I" - because you are the subject. "I saw him at the park."
  • If it's being done to you, it's "me" - because you are the object. "He saw me at the club."
  • If you're doing it to yourself, it's "myself" - because you are both. "I saw myself / He saw himself / We saw ourselves in the mirror."
  • Dirty Trick: Remove the confusing factor and try the sentence again, and that'll give you the answer.
  • For example: “Return your application form to Mr. Burns, Mr. Smithers or myself.” Not sure if that's right? Running it through your mind as “Return your application form to myself” sounds ridiculous and reveals ‘me’ as the correct usage: “Return your application form to Mr. Burns, Mr. Smithers or me.”
  • Or this one: “Marge and me will be at Doctor Hibbard's office on time.” “Me will be at Doctor Hibbard's office on time” is of course ghastly and reveals ‘I’ as the correct usage: “Marge and I will be at Doctor Hibbard's office on time.”

Legal and Business Writing

Capitalization

  • Do not capitalize the words "section," "paragraph," etc., unless they are themselves used within the document as part of its section titles.
  • Do not capitalize the word "state" unless you are referring to a previously-defined, specific state as a legal person. Keep in mind: the word "state" is analogous to "nation" and is not part of the name of any state of the United States. "Citizen of the state of Ohio" refers to a citizen of Ohio and in no way requires reference to the State of Ohio as a person. If you wouldn't capitalize "nation" in the same usage, or if you could change "state of" to "place called," then don't capitalize "state." Confused? Get in line. But while you're waiting, change all your documents from "laws of the State of Ohio" to "laws of the state of Ohio." Or better yet, just say "Ohio law." Remember, you don't get paid by the word.
  • The same rules applies to words like "federal," "municipal," "ordinance," and others of similar ilk. We don't capitalize words just because they refer - or we think they refer - to Something Important.

Capitalization and Plurals

This section deals with the mixed problem of capitalizing and pluralizing proper names and titles. But first, a review.

A general noun is a single word that identifies a thing, - e.g., girl, city, planet.
A proper noun is a single word that identifies a specific person, place, or thing - e.g., Rona, Fargo, Mars.
A proper name is two or more words that identify a specific person, place, or thing - e.g., Oberlin College.

In English only proper nouns and proper names are capitalized. General nouns (e.g., city, state, college, scholarship) are left in lower case. English ain't German. Here's how it works:

  • "Bailiff, please go out and bring in both John Smiths" (two men, both named "John Smith"), or
  • "Bailiff, please go out and bring in the deputies Smith" (two deputies sharing the modifier "Smith"),
  • "Bailiff, please go out and bring in both deputy sheriffs" (two deputy sheriffs).
    • In the first example, "John Smith" is a proper name, shared by both men, and as is usual in English the final "s" creates the plural. In this example "John Smith" modifies the implied object "men." The sentence could have been cast as "Bring in the two men named John Smith" by pluralizing the object "men" directly.
    • In the second example, "Smith" is part of a proper name which modifies the preceding plural, "deputy." The judge is asking the bailiff to bring in two deputies, both of whom happen to me named Smith. Each could be individually addressed as "Deputy Smith" but "Deputy Smith" is not a proper name. It is part of a proper name (Smith) preceded by his title.
    • In the third example, "deputy sheriffs" is not capitalized because "deputy sheriff" is a title, and titles are neether[1] proper nouns nor proper names unless they are defined as such in the document. Otherwise, titles are capitalized only when they precede the name to which they apply, e.g., "the deputies, including Deputy Smith, agreed to forgo jargon in their reports from now on."
  • "The parties[Parties] represent that they have read and understand this contract."
    • In this last example, the title "parties" will be capitalized if the document defines it as a proper name. A definition for this particular word would read something like, "John Doe and Richard Roe (each a 'Party' and collectively the 'Parties') agree...."

Punctuation

  • Do not flatter sentence fragments appearing on their own line (such as kickers, headlines, and section headings) with periods unless the format of the entire work is such that headings already have internal periods. As mentioned above, trailing periods are not underscored.

For headings appearing on their own line:
Right Wrong Way Super Wrong
Standard Section Heading Standard Section Heading. Standard Section Heading.
Section 1. Named Section Heading.     Section 1. Named Section Heading     Section 1. Named Section Heading.

For headings followed by inline text:
Right Wrong Way Super Wrong
Standard Section Heading. Lorem ipsum.... Standard Section Heading Lorem ipsum.... Standard Section Heading. Lorem ipsum....
Section 1. Named Section Heading. Lorem ipsum.... Section 1. Named Section Heading Lorem ipsum.... Section 1. Named Section Heading. Lorem ipsum....
  • In defining proper names inline (Inline Proper Names), set them off with parentheses or quotation marks but not both unless the parenthetical is so long that the term being defined might get lost in the parenthetical. Again, the idea is to avoid clutter. Parentheses' technique of whispering is suggested as the better way since using quotation marks will require extra words if one wishes to avoid accusations of being "cute" or condescending. If, on defining an Inline Proper Name, you find you've never used it, delete the definition.

Jargon

  • The term "jargon" does not refer to technical words but rather to words which subtract value instead of adding it. Jargon words are easy to write and say, but justification is generally nothing more than "I want to sound important." Excising jargon from your writing will not "dumb it down" (something that should never be done in any case).
  • Dump the made-up words "recordation" and "appraisement." It's perfectly OK to write with clarity by using the words we've always used: "recording" and "appraisal."
  • Another "big word" that's sprung up in recent years is "verbiage." Just write "wording." Or better yet, "text."
  • No legal document was ever improved by having lots of herebys.
  • Do not use "please" in technical writing, i.e., when giving instructions, unless your intent is to be condescending.
  • It is not necessary to identify the legal nature of a signer under some mistaken impression that a signer's nature is part of its signature. Or under any other theory for that matter, including "that's how they told me to do it." In other words, "an Ohio corporation" is not part of the name (or signature) of any corporation I know of. Nor is "an individual" (see below), or the correct appellation "a natural person," part of my signature (or yours). Just leave them off and an enjoy a leaner, cleaner document.
  • Whenever possible, say "if" instead of "in the event that."
  • Take your time. Remember:
If I'd had more time, I'd've written you a shorter letter.[2]
and
Shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs: better writing.[3]

Terminology

  • The word "individual" is nothing more than a synonym for "one" or "unique": one desk, one chair, one person, one house. Human beings may be individuals, but they are referred to as "natural persons," "people," "men and women." All other entities are "legal persons" or "legal entities."
  • "Sex" is not a dirty word. When one is asking about or referring to whether a person (or any animal for that matter) is male or female, the reference is to a biological state, i.e, the animal's sex. Gender refers to characteristics analogous to "maleness" or "femaleness," i.e., the nature of being masculine or feminine or having characteristics analogous to the masculine or feminine, and not to a biological state. Sex and gender are two, quite different things. Nuts, bolts, electrical and plumbing fittings, social characteristics, and even quotation marks[4] come in various genders, but animals come in sexes.

Grammar

  • Don't start a sentence with "notwithstanding." Although I am against jargon, I am not against elegance: "Anything in this agreement to the contrary notwithstanding, Buyer will not be required to pay more than one dollar ($1.00) for the property." It just sounds so much nicer.
  • Avoid the future perfect like the plague. Contracts speak at the time of concern, not at the time of writing, and certainly not at some undefined future time looking back at the past. It is never justified to say, "If X shall have been...." Say, "If X is" or "If X occurs" - or whatever - but say it in the present tense. After all, that's how you would say it in conversation.

Abbreviations

Rule No. 1: Don't use abbreviations in marketing materials.

  • Letters, pleadings, motions, briefs, term papers, and anything else you write for your boss are marketing materials. Note that “i.e.,” “e.g.,” and “etc.” are not abbreviations but contractions of two or more words and have, in any case, pretty much become whole words in their own right.
Rule No. 2: Everything worth writing is marketing material.
  • Except in limited and specialized cases, do not substitute symbols for words. This includes “at” (@) and “number” (#) and “and” (&). There are two exceptions I can think of: first, is a symbol used as part of a proper name (such as F. & A.M.), and second is use of the “section” symbol (§) in direct conjunction with a number referring to a section of codified law.
  • When writing dates in legal or business documents, always write out the name of the month completely, always include the year (people understand numbers just fine without leading zeros as placeholders), and do not use ordinal indicators:
    • Right: July 4, 1776
    • Wrong: Jul. 4 / Jul. 04
    • Wrong: July 4 / July 04
    • Wrong: July 4th / July 04th
    • Wrong: July 4th, 1776 / July 04th, 1776
  • Do not use superscripting (1st) or typographical symbols (⅔) in business correspondence or other marketing materials. These symbols were created to represent abbreviations used in handwriting. Their place today is in typeset work intended to represent something originally written by hand.[5] Instead write out the word completely: first, one-quarter, two-thirds, etc. Symbols should be used only in mathematical formulæ or in reproducing handwriting. If your word processing software is configured to make changes such as (c) to © or 2nd to 2nd - change its options.
  • Don't use abbreviations in addresses. Well, OK, you can abbreviate the name of the state with its standard two-letter abbreviation - but take an upgrade and leave “Ohio” alone. After all, it's only four letters.
  • It's OK, and often appropriate, to use contractions. It really is.
  • The abbreviation of “versus” is “v.” - no “s” required.

Redundancy

  • It's OK to to say "approximately 2.397." It is ridiculous to say "approximately 2.397±." [Tom M. take note.] Keep in mind that when spoken aloud, the ± symbol is pronounced "plus or minus" or "more or less," but in eether[1] case means "approximately." One would never say "approximately 2.397 approximately."

Formatting

Trivia

Q. What is the real name of that "number sign" symbol?
A. It's called a hash, octohorpe, or oglethorpe.

Q. Why is the ampersand (&) situated on the seven (7) key on the typewriter?
A. Because the ampersand is an abbreviation for et (meaning "and") and the 7 is similar in form to the Tironian symbol for et (). Both the "&" and the "" have their roots in classical antiquity, and both symbols were used up through the Middle Ages as a representation for the Latin word "et," meaning "and." When proofreading with a partner and you come across the ampersand, say "et" instead of "and."

Q. Is there a cooler way to write "etc."?
A. Yes. Do it the way Ben Franklin might've done it: &c or c ("et" plus "cetera").

Q. Is there an underline character on the typewriter keyboard?
A. No. There is, however, an underscore character, and it's way more classy.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 As an exception that proves the rule, this wiki prefers the phonetic spellings of "eether" and "neether."
  2. Blaise Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 1656-7, Number 16, this one written December 4, 1656, "Je n’ai fait /cette lettre-ci/ plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte" - roughly, "I made this letter so long (lit.: longer) only because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter." See A Way With Words, accessed January 1, 2013.
  3. Me.
  4. Quotation marks come in two genders: curly and ambidextrous.
  5. Every letter written in an office is advertising. Everything written by a lawyer is advertising.

Continuing On