A Word, Please: Keeping your grammar out of the headlines

When people tell me they don’t care about grammar and punctuation, I get it. Some people have more urgent priorities.

If a widower is working full-time while caring for an ailing parent and raising three kids, who am I to tell him that he needs to make time to learn about apostrophes?

But that doesn’t apply to lawyers. For an attorney, basic grammar skills can mean the difference between performing well on the job and ending up a punch line in newspaper headlines.

On June 15, the Springfield News-Leader reported that Anissa Bluebaum, an attorney representing convicted sex offender Alison Peck in a civil suit against Peck’s former probation officer, had some problems with her grammar. If the attorney representing the probation officer is to be believed, Bluebaum’s punctuation skills in particular are bad enough to render her whole argument an unintelligible mess.

A petition Bluebaum filed contained references to “defendants” as well as “defendant’s” in contexts that may have made it unclear whether she was referring only to probation officer Rebecca Martin or to both Martin and her brother, who is also involved in the case.

“Defendant does not know whether plaintiff is just not familiar with the use of possessives or whether plaintiff was referring to merely one of the two defendants,” a motion document submitted by Martin’s attorney, Richard Crites, said. “Is this merely the poor usage of the English language by plaintiff's attorney? We have no earthly idea which is the case.”

That wasn’t the only problem with Bluebaum’s writing. In fact, Crites found enough problems to fill eight pages with questions about both the case and Bluebaum’s competency.

There are two valuable lessons here, one on possessives and one on unclear antecedents.

Of the two, unclear antecedents are easier to avoid. In fact, I can tell you how to sidestep this problem in just two words: Pay attention. As the name suggests, unclear antecedents are just words, usually pronouns, that refer to something else but leave it unclear what.

Look at this passage. “The dog wagged its tail. It was short and brown.”

What was short and brown? The dog or its tail? From the grammar we can’t quite be sure. So this is an example of an unclear antecedent.

It can work the same way with a noun too, say, for example, “defendant.” That word clearly is meant to refer to a specific person. So a lawyer using that word should make sure it’s always clear who the defendant is.

As for those apostrophes: There’s nothing wrong with writing “defendant’s” if that’s what you mean. But if the context leaves your reader baffled as to whether you actually meant “defendants,” that’s a serious problem.

Bottom line: Don’t use an apostrophe to form a plural. Use apostrophes only to form possessives, “the defendant’s home,” or to form contractions like “the defendant’s now serving time,” in which “the defendant’s” is a shortened way of saying “defendant is.” That’s probably not a good idea in legal documents, but grammatically it’s fine.

In some styles and in rare cases, apostrophes are used to form plurals. For example, New York Times style has long used apostrophes in decades written “the 1980’s” and “the 1600’s.” But they’re the odd ducks. Most professional editing styles don’t use apostrophes this way.

Pause to remember the basic rules of plurals and possessives and you’ll be fine. One dog. Two dogs. One dog’s tail. Two dogs’ owners. And remember that, for simple plural possessives, first you add the S then you tack on the apostrophe.

Follow those simple guidelines and you can rest assured your grammar failings won’t make headlines.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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