Wisdom's Idiosyncrasies

By Wisdom, John Minor | The Yale Law Journal, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Wisdom's Idiosyncrasies


Wisdom, John Minor, The Yale Law Journal


Some of which you learned in elementary school from Miss Thistlebottom before you had ever heard of Strunk.

Try to state the key question in the first sentence.

Give the court's holding in the first paragraph or, at least, in a short introductory section. Put the sex appeal in the

   first sentence and last sentence of each opinion;
   first paragraph and last paragraph of each opinion.

One idea to a sentence.

Present tense.

Active voice, not passive voice, as far as possible.

One word instead of two; two instead of three, five--so on.

Prefer the short word to a longer synonym.

Do not use "claims" when you mean "contends", "asserts", "argues", "alleges", "maintains", "represents", "declares", "states". The list can be expanded. You claim your umbrella. You submit a claim for $100.

No zeros after an even number; for example--$25.

No Latinisms, if possible; for example--prefer "later" to "subsequently", "before" to "prior to", "about" to "approximately" (I never use it except in referring to numbers). You cannot do a thing about habeas corpus, a suit in rem against a ship, and a few others.

No legalisms, e.g., "thereof", "therein", "herein", "said", "hereinafter", "pursuant". No legal or scientific jargon.

"Albeit" is stilted and obsolescent. Ditto "anent".

No comma when the day of the month is not given--June 1970.

Do not use possessive--apostrophe--with things, except personified things, e.g., ship's, state's.

No weasel words--"very", "quite", "rather", "somewhat".

"Only" belongs immediately before the word it modifies. That way you avoid such inanities as "He only killed her."

No supra, no infra. Even a judge should know that if no citation accompanies the title of a case, the case has been cited earlier in the opinion.

Do not use "implement" and "implementation" when "carry out" does just as well.

No "contacted". (I accept "contact" only as descriptive of a certain type of lens; well, football is a contact sport.) Avoid "to contact", or its variant forms. No "finalized", no "authored", unless you are prepared to say "paintered". Rephrase. Nouns are nouns; they are out of bounds when altered to verbs or adjectives.

In these circumstances--not under, unless "under the circumstances" is intended to imply conditions.

Usually--no split infinitive. But remember Churchill's admonition in regard to objections against ending a sentence with a preposition, "Up with this I shall not put"; that is, there are exceptions to every rule.

Jones's, not Jones'.

No elegant variation. Do not be afraid to repeat.

"Usually", not "normally", unless you are referring to someone who is recovering from a fever.

Comma before "and" in a series of three or more.

Avoid gerund--e.g., the court's submitting, etc.

Use lower case for the district court unless the district is mentioned; upper case for Court of Appeals.

Courts "hold", "decide", "find". "conclude"; they do not "believe"; they do not "think", at least in opinions.

"In the light of" is a cast-iron idiom; "in light of" is unacceptable.

"Fitted" is the preferred past tense of "fit", not "fit".

Forget "deem" and "deemed".

"That" is a good and often necessary word, although it is unknown to authors of comments and notes in the law reviews.

"While" throws you off, when you mean "although".

Always use articles--the plaintiffs; well, almost always.

The adjective is the enemy of the noun; the adverb is the enemy of the verb. Think of the right word.

Avoid "which", an ugly word. Mark Twain, so the legend goes, rewrote Innocents Abroad without using the word "which". Also, remember "that" is restrictive and "which" is nonrestrictive. Usually, if you would use commas to set off a clause, use "which"; if not, use "that". …

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