Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2011
The Legal Writer
Web-based Authorities:
Reliable Resources for the Wired Writer
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost

As professional writers, lawyers should keep a style manual or two on a nearby shelf. But for those of us who would rather not swivel away from the computer, reach for a book and heaven forbid, turn pages, the Internet abounds with writing blogs and guides.

Just as you wouldn’t trust every foreign prince on the web to pay out on your investment, you can’t trust every grammar blogger to know about a comma splice. Descriptivists (and dolts) in sheep’s clothing seek to lead you astray. So to save you from unsuccessful stabs in the dark, I have compiled a list of reliable writing sites. Bookmark them now and thank me later.

Grammar Girl
If you are looking for advice about grammar and word choice, Grammar Girl at www.quickanddirtytips.com is an excellent option. Mignon Fogarty, the site’s founder, is a professional writer and entrepreneur with an abounding love of grammar. Fogarty, aka “The Grammar Girl,” will talk you through “lay vs. lie,” “will vs. shall,” and many of life’s other tough choices. She’ll often relay both the strict rule and common usage rule and give you the pros and cons of each.

For example, in a recent article on word choice, she explains that fun is traditionally only a noun. Despite what we may think, funis not an adjective, though its use as a modifier may be gaining acceptance in modern sources. Therefore, “I had fun” is correct. “I am fun” is technically incorrect (on several counts).

The Grammar Girl’s explanations are written in a more narrative style than a true style manual, but they’re thorough and reliable nonetheless. Although the site is junked up with ads and video, patient weeding can usually yield a reliable answer to your question. Bonus: she’s on Facebook, and who among us isn’t looking to make a meaningful connection?

Guide to Grammar and Writing
The Guide to Grammar and Writing site, http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/, sponsored by a community college foundation in Hartford, Conn., contains an exhaustive collection of rules, examples and tips on grammar, punctuation, word choice and style. Admittedly, the interface is old fashioned and only mildly searchable. Browsing the site feels a bit like stepping back in time to the mid-’90s, Netscape Navigator days. So why include an ugly and cumbersome site among my favorites? If you get past the clunkiness, you’ll find the word-, sentence- and paragraph-level help useful and easy to understand.

I tend to skip the pull-down menus and head straight for the alphabetical index. While searching the 427-term index for an answer to your question, you might strike upon some unexpected gold. For instance, under the “Bad and Badly,” entry, the site offers a quick tip for when to use the adjective bad and the adverb badly: If the word follows a linking verb describing the five senses, use bad. Writing “I feel bad” means I have regrets or sorrow, while “I feel badly” suggests something is wrong with my ability to touch. Only 426 lessons to go!

Guide to Grammar and Style
Like the first and second sites, the collection of rules, suggestions and grammatical preferences of Guide to Grammar and Style, http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing, is thorough and sensible, but this one is even more fun to read. Prof. Jack Lynch of Rutgers University relays the rules like a cantankerous English professor who has read too many lousy freshman papers. For example, he introduces additional resources by writing, “There are countless writing guides, most of them awful.” (Amen.) While describing the site’s purpose and layout, he digresses into whether the world is going to hell. And as to whether “between you and I” is ever proper, Prof. Lynch writes simply, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” I trust his grammar advice, and I want to hang out with him.

If I had just one wish, I’d waste it on making every lawyer read Lynch’s section on “Begging the Question.” As Lynch writes, “It doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Begging the question suggests a logical fallacy based on circular reasoning. The phrase is simply not synonymous with raises the question. Now if only Lynch would tackle cliché business speak like ping me and revert back.

Common Errors in English Usage
Don’t miss Common Errors in English Usage, http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/. If you are looking for style and word choice advice, English Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University has compiled a healthy list of misused English words and phrases, bless his intrepid soul. Among the hundreds of entries, he reminds us that irregardless is not a word. He instructs us to use just as soon, not just assume (as in, “I’d just as soon throw myself off a bridge before using irregardless in a sentence.”) And he implores us to stop using literallyas an intensifier. Literally, he begs. The seemingly never-ending list of errors is fun to scroll through and ought to be required reading for all English speakers.

The Purdue OWL
The Purdue Online Writing Lab, http://owl.english.purdue.edu/, is perhaps a bit off target for legal writing purposes, but its sections on mechanics, grammar and punctuation are clear, organized and thorough. OWL, as it is also known, seems geared to students, and perhaps it’s more useful for fixing already-identified writing problems. For example, if I needed to know whether “a dozen eggs” is singular or plural, I would probably search elsewhere (the answer: it depends). But if, for example, I recognized that my writing lacked effective transitions, this site could be a good resource because of its clear instructional materials and many examples.

OWL has some other valuable content, like tips about visual rhetoric, extensive excerpts from the MLA Style Manual, and resume and cover letter advice. The resume and cover letter section provides lots of free advice, including lists of effective active verbs and tips for design and typeface.

The Writer’s Handbook from the University of Wisconsin – Madison
If you are seeking suggestions about style and editing, the University of Wisconsin Writing Center’s Writer’s Handbook, http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook, might be useful. This online handbook includes simple tips to improve your writing, suggestions for your writing process, and the elements of proper grammar and punctuation. Explanations are clear enough, but like any true grammar guide, it tends to get heavy on the grammatical jargon.

While the grammar sections are a helpful reference, I particularly like the tips to improve writing. Once you hit the editing and proofing stage of writing, read through the Writing Center’s nine methods for achieving clear, concise sentences. One of the simplest tips is to avoid constructions like it is and there are (interestingly called “expletives”). Expletive construction obfuscates the subject and rarely improves a sentence.

Search your writing for sentences that begin with it is and there are and rephrase. For example, “it is” serves no purpose in the following sentence: “It is probable that a jury will find him guilty.” A slightly rephrased sentence says the same thing with fewer words and places the emphasis back on the subject — the jury: “A jury will probably find him guilty.” Working through each of the site’s tips on conciseness with a draft in hand will help you reduce verbal clutter.

Writing Forward
The Writing Forward blog, www.writingforward.com, is the black sheep of my list because it’s geared to inspiring creative writers, not fine-tuning professional writing. Consequently, the site is packed with tips about defeating writer’s block, improving your writing process and fostering creativity. The section devoted to style and mechanics is basic and less comprehensive than other sites. Nevertheless, I include Writing Forward for those of us who occasionally stall out while writing. After all, who can worry about grammar when you can’t get any words on the page?

So now you have the resources to solve your coordinating conjunction conundrum and get back to writing. But the lure of the Internet is so strong! Celebrity gossip blogs and sports scores beckon like a siren’s song. Fortunately, I have a solution for that, too. If you’re a Firefox user, check out the add-on called MeeTimer, downloadable at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/meetimer/, which logs the time you spend on websites during the day. The ticking procrastination clock in the corner of your screen might just shame you back to work. If more draconian measures are in order, download a program like Freedom, which will block your Internet access for up to eight hours. Freedom is available for download for both Mac and PC users at www.macfreedom.com. Now you have literally no excuse not to start writing perfectly.


Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches Legal Research and Writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2011 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost

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