Monday, April 16, 2007

Grammar: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them (Part 1)

Before I started working in the legal profession, I was a journalist and copy editor. I spent a good part of my day vigilantly guarding my own work and the work of others against grammatical errors that could have diminished the credibility of the publications. Now, in the legal world, I use that same vigilance on my own correspondence. Grammar is absolutely key in the legal world, as words are the cornerstone of our jobs as paralegals.

Knowing the finer points of grammar is essential to any task, whether it's sending an e-mail to a client or drafting a legal memorandum. Proper grammar sends across a message: that you're professional and that you took the time to proofread your communications. It helps prevent confusion, too. How many times have we received an e-mail that was sloppily written, only to have to call the sender to find out what she really meant? Or try to muddle through run-on sentences, fragments and commas scattered about like birdseed? It gets frustrating after a while. The worst part is, sometimes we know we’re the ones frustrating someone else.

For the next 20 weeks (one mistake per week), I'll explain the most common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them. For now, though, here are the top tips I've gleaned from my journalism experience:

  • Keep it simple. If you can say it in a shorter sentence, do it.
  • Proofread everything.
  • Keep a dictionary, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, and a thesaurus within arms’ reach.
  • Practice writing, and have someone else review what you've written.
  • Read well-written pieces and learn from them.

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