TO CELEBRATE NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY, “CUT LOOSE THE SHACKLES OF THE PAST”

It’s National Grammar Day. Yippee. A special day to commemorate the rules and conventions, dear to us appellate wonks, that refine (or constrain) communication. On such a day, it’s tempting to celebrate by cranking out a “5 Worst” list of common transgressions, a Festivus-like “Airing of [Grammatical] Grievances.” But instead, why not go the other direction? How about taking a moment to acknowledge new-found freedom from old rules, freedom that allows us to write in a more natural, conversational tone, without doing harm to the language? Three examples come quickly to mind:

  • Split infinitives. Those of us of a certain age were brought up to believe that splitting an infinitive was just short of a capital offense. After all, infinitives can’t be split in Latin or French; so why should we split them in English? Well, because the structure of our language allows it, and sometimes it just sounds or reads better. Would you prefer “to quickly read the menu” or “to read quickly the menu”? Thought so.

  • And/But. In that same vein, many a red mark appeared on elementary and junior high papers where the pupil began a sentence with a conjunction, “and” or “but.” But you know, sometimes it’s appropriate, especially for emphasis. That’s the way we talk. Just don’t overdo it.

  • Contractions. Somewhere along the line a voice from on high decreed, “Thou shalt not use contractions in formal legal writing.” For some reason. And so we didn’t. But no more. Posner and Easterbrook, among others, regularly use contractions in their circuit court opinions. With apologies to Garner and Scalia, if it’s good enough for Posner and Easterbrook, it’s probably good enough for us mere mortals. It will give your writing a more comfortable, conversational tone. But again, don’t overdo it.

So, go on; knock yourself out today. Split an infinitive or two. And don’t hesitate to use a contraction in a sentence that begins with a conjunction. You’ll feel better and your writing will flow more naturally. Meanwhile, we can hardly wait for National Typography Day when we can push the one-space-[not-two]-after-a-period rule…

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