To boldly go splitting infinitives

Infinitives are a type of verb with the word to in front of it. For instance to run or to leaveAlthough common practice dictates that it is OK to split infinitives, be careful that your sentence makes sense. Using a split infinitive can change the meaning of your entire sentence or leave your reader wondering what you really mean. For example:

Mary decided to quickly leave the party

While correct, this sentence is a bit unclear. Try moving the offending adverb (quicklybefore or after the infinitive (to leave). 

Mary decided quickly to leave the party.

Now you know that Mary made a quick decision to leave.

Mary decided to leave the party quickly.

Here Mary left the party quickly. Keeping the infinitive phrase together helps both sentences make sense. However, one of the most famous phrases of all time for all my Trekkie friends was a split infinitive – “To boldly go where no man has gone before” – where “boldly” splits the infinitive “to go.” Using either “To go boldly” or “Boldly to go” doesn’t have the same impact as “To boldly go” for Star Trek purposes. Sometimes it just works. 

It is important to be cognizant of what your sentence will mean to your reader. Watch for Wednesday’s Grammar Giggle, which is a perfect example of a split infinitive making a sentence have an entirely different meaning than what is intended.

Grammar Giggles – MARTA

From a friend.  I love that I have friends from around the country noticing errors in signage.  This one was seen on the MARTA train, the Metro Atlanta train system.

Besides the obvious capitalization problems, they’ve left out a word in the first bullet and have an unnecessary comma in the second.  For all the world to see . . . 

Ellipsis marks . . . spaced or not . . . that is the question

It seems that schools these days are teaching young lawyers to leave out the space between the ellipsis marks or perhaps they are being taught that strategy as a space saving maneuver for the briefs that have page limits. I regularly see the ellipsis marks squished together with no spaces. The ellipsis marks – periods with spaces before and after each period (. . .) – are used where quoted material is not included to show where that material has been left out. Perhaps the new spaceless ellipsis mark is because they are learning the shortcut in Word to insert ellipsis marks, but without spaces. My “go to” grammar reference manual says there should be spaces, so don’t get caught up in leaving spaces out because Microsoft says it is OK.

To review when to use ellipsis marks, if the writer is leaving words out of a direct quotation, use ellipsis marks. If the omitted language is at the end of a regular sentence, use the ellipsis marks followed by the punctuation needed to end the sentence. For instance if the complete sentence is a question, you would include the ellipsis marks, with spaces, a space after the last ellipsis mark, and then a question mark. For instance, “Can someone explain the process . . . ?” (The original question was “Can someone explain the process used to solve this problem?”)

If the omitted language is between sentences in the quoted paragraph, use the ending punctuation for the first sentence, space and ellipsis marks, and then the next sentence. For example, “The research was done on Black Friday shopping at the mall. . . . The shoppers last year were rude and exhausted.” If, however, you are using just a portion of a quote within a sentence, use just quotation marks and not ellipsis marks as long as the quoted section is complete.

Ellipsis marks are a valuable tool for making sure quotations are correct and reflected accurately. Without ellipsis marks, you would have to either include entire quotations or a reader wouldn’t know for sure that it is not an exact quotation. Just be sure that the writer is not omitting a critical part of the quotation, ellipsis marks or not. You need to make sure that partial quotations being used don’t leave something critical out that might be against the purpose for the quotation in your document. That might give your opponent all the ammunition he needs to ruin your lawyer’s reputation with that judge forever.

Grammar Giggles – Photo Machine

Thanks to my sister for sharing this one with me. So many things wrong with this sign. 
Some that I notice right away:
  • How can a photo be closed? I assume they mean photo DEPARTMENT.  
  • The comma is not appropriate.  
  • I’m not sure what “prolems” are, but imagine they are not as bad as “problems.”  
  • I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that proper nouns (like names of streets) should be capitalized. Apparently, this person was only taught to capitalize the first word in a sentence. The last sentence isn’t even a good sentence with all the words missing. 

Having a sign with these many errors is almost worse than having no sign at all. Maybe I should make up a grammatically correct sign for them to use next time and drop it off. As long as their copier isn’t having “prolems.”

And starting a sentence with a conjunction might be OK.

Back when I was learning grammar and diagramming sentences, using a coordinating conjunction such as and or but to start a sentence was against all rules. Now I find out that it was probably against the rules because it was an easy way for our English teachers to make sure we didn’t have sentence fragments. The use of a conjunction to start a sentence is a good way to draw special attention to that sentence. However, it is very informal and conversational. Because of that, it won’t work in a legal brief or other “formal” writing. If you want to use a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence, make sure you are using it for emphasis and be very careful it is not just a sentence fragment. Here are some examples:

Groucho Marx wrote in his thank you note: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

Tell her to return my voicemail message. Or else.

These are both very good examples of starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions for emphasis.

Tell him to come to my office. And read the report.

This is a fragment. The sentence starting with the coordinating conjunction doesn’t make sense and doesn’t need special emphasis. It is more of an afterthought.

The danger of  starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions is that doing it too much quickly loses its effectiveness. I still don’t like it and change it in most documents I proofread. Whether the attorney author accepts my changes is quite another thing, but at least I’ve made my point.

So the basic rule is to use coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence sparingly for emphasis but not in a formal writing.  And not when I’m proofing your work.

Font Size Does Matter

At the NALS Annual Education Conference and National Forum I attended in Portland this past week, I learned an unbelievable amount of information, including a name for something I see a lot — a Frankenbrief.  A Frankenbrief is a brief that has had many people working on parts of it and then it is all put together into one document.  There are many problems with a Frankenbrief, including the flow of the document from so many different styles of writing by different authors, consistency with defined words and capitalization, justification issues, and different font sizes. When working on a Frankenbrief, you should automatically check the big things like the defined terms and consistency issues, but it is also important to check the little things, including justification or non-justification (being consistent with author preference although I personally think it is easier to read non-justified text) for each separate paragraph and font size.  There may be just a slight difference between 12 point and 13 point font, but someone who looks at a lot of typed documents (like a judge or a law clerk) can tell when there are different font sizes.  If you get a judge who is a real stickler who might find some 12 point font mixed in with the 13 point font required by the Court rules, the possibility does exist that he or she would not accept your document as deficient because of the font size.  It is just one more thing that makes a difference and shows the reader that you are paying attention to the details that will make their task of reading your document just a little bit easier.

Cap It!

Deciding whether or not to capitalize a word is sometimes confusing.  We know to capitalize proper nouns, which are the official name of a particular person, place, or thing.  Trade names, trademarks, and business names should all be capitalized as the owner of the name prefers (subject to some grammar rules – see below).  If you don’t know what they prefer, confirm it by searching for the home page on the Internet and seeing how they treat capitalization.  For example, I see this spelled wrong more frequently than it is spelled correctly:

As you can see from the website, Microsoft capitalizes both “P’s” in PowerPoint.  Thus, being lazy and only capitalizing the first one is just plain wrong!

Also remember not to expect that your reader knows what the product is that you are describing.  For instance, “The Phoenix pawn shop had 10 stolen Rolexes” is more appropriately stated “The Phoenix pawn shop had 10 stolen Rolex watches” since your reader may not know that Rolex is a watch.  If, however, the product name describes the product, it is not necessary to further describe it, as in “My daughter’s favorite Easter candy is a Cadbury Cream Egg.”

Where the trademark officially begins with a lowercase letter, it still falls under the “normal” English capitalization rules because, as the “official” name of a thing, it should be written with an initial capital letter.  For example, the official lowercase “craigslist” would be “I found my treadmill on Craigslist.”


However, where the name begins with a pronounced lowercase separate letter followed by a capitalized letter, it should be the official name unless it starts a sentence or otherwise should be capitalized based on the normal grammar rules.  For example “EBay had the best deal on Mary’s iPod.” is correct because it starts a sentence, even though it is not the correct trademark.  It would be better reworded to “Mary got the best deal on her iPod on eBay.”

Take the time to research proper capitalization.  Companies register trade names and trademarks for a reason and it is important to be correct when using them.  It shows that you are interested in quality work product.

One Space or Two?

Your sentence ends and then what? One space or two? When I learned typing way back in the day it was always two spaces. Apparently, somewhere along the way, the experts forgot to tell me that it changed. The typewriter I used back then was monospaced type (although it WAS electric!). Even with the advent of the IBM Selectric Executive proportional type, it was still double space after the ending punctuation. Now with computer fonts that are nearly all proportional, a single space is preferred. It is a typographer rule that has been in place since the early 20th Century in Europe and in place with American typographers not long after. It is not only the typographers, but also the major style guides (including the Gregg Reference Manual), who use the one space rule.

It is important to use correct rules pursuant to your chosen style guide and to stick to those rules, but it is more important to be consistent. If your writer prefers two spaces, use two spaces and be consistent. If they don’t really care (and other than the micromanager, it really shouldn’t matter that much), use one space and be consistent with that.

Using only one space is a huge learning curve (or maybe just for me). In fact, in preparation of this post, I had to go back every single time and change the two spaces after every end punctuation to one space. It’s hard to let go of things learned over 40 years ago, but it is not impossible. I’m going to spend this week making a concerted effort to use the correct one space rule rather than two spaces. Who’s in?