Apt Phrasing in Legal Writing, 1021 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 9 Pg. 10

PositionVol. 50, 9 [Page 10]

50 Colo.Law. 10

Apt Phrasing in Legal Writing

No. Vol. 50, No. 9 [Page 10]

Colorado Lawyer

October, 2021



"Words are the building blocks of die law."

John G. Roberts Jr., Chief Justice

Choosing die right words and formulations is a key element of good legal writing. Yet many lawyers struggle with the nuances of phrasing, and even strong writers can further hone their diction. Though a misstep here or there is no great matter, a proliferation of inapt or antiquated wording choices undermines a lawyer's credibility and detracts from die essential points a lawyer wants to convey.

This article identifies some of the most common phrasing pitfalls found in legal documents, shows how to avoid those missteps, and explains why doing so will strengthen one's writing and reputation.

Misused Expressions

Outright phrasing mistakes are not only embarrassing but also detrimental to your advocacy. An error like using "on accident" rather than "by accident" will distract a careful reader from your analysis, at a minimum. Worse still, such mistakes may lead readers to assume (consciously or subconsciously) that your arguments are as misinformed as your choice of language. Judges—many of whom learned die art of good writing as law review editors—tend to be particularly critical readers. The table below shows some commonly misused phrases.

Another frequent misstep among lawyers is using the expression "beg the question" to mean "raise die question" rather than "engage in circular reasoning." This brings up an interesting issue: Many lawyers—notably, the late Justice Antonin Scalia—have an arguably inflexible view of language, eschewing the notion that a phrase's meaning may evolve when enough people start using it in a nontraditional sense. Using "beg die question" in reference to raising a question has become so common that some language experts think it's now acceptable. But your job as a lawyer is to be persuasive, so you shouldn't risk putting off judges or other important readers who are traditionalists.

If you think you may be guilty of misusing some of the expressions noted in this section, perform a web search for "commonly misused expressions" and you'll find plentiful additional guidance.

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