Notes from the Editor

AuthorBy John Foust
Published in
The Construction Lawyer
, Volume 41, Number 3. © 2021 American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not
be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
continued on page 41
Editorial Discretion
This is my nal column as Edi-
tor of The Construction Lawyer.
By the time this issue hits your
desk, our Associate Editor Lau-
ren Catoe will have taken over
as Editor, and Chris Burke—
who has been one of our many
excellent Contributing Editors—
will have ascended to the role of Associate Editor. Lauren
and Chris will be bringing bold new ideas and a boost of
energy to this storied publication; I am excited to see what
the journal looks like under their stewardship.
Rather than using my nal column to summarize and
tie together the various articles in this issue, I am taking
this as an opportunity to share some of the many edito-
rial insights I have gained during my six years of editing
this journal. Or, to put it more accurately, I will use this
humble pulpit as a vehicle to rant about grammar, usage,
and style in the legal profession today.
There has been a growing tendency for lawyers to submit
their briefs and memos using full-justied margins (where
the words line up on both sides of the page). Please stop
this terrible practice! Full justication requires a profes-
sional typographer to insert hyphens so that each line has
the proper number of characters (something this journal
has, but your word processor does not). In contrast, the
full-justication feature in MS Word merely causes your
words to be nightmarishly stretched across the page, often
to the point of surrealism, making the document hard to
read and even harder to edit. Bryan Garner, noted writer
and editor of texts about legal writing, advises against
full-justication, and many courts go as far as to prohibit
it in their published style requirements. In other words,
there is nothing wrong with a ragged right margin.
Who Cares About an Oxford Comma?
Of all the grammar discussions I have with other
lawyers, nothing comes up more frequently than the
Oxford comma. Famous among Millennials for being the
title of a catchy song by Vampire Weekend, the Oxford
comma is also known as the serial comma because it
appears before the nal entry in a series of items (e.g., red,
white, and blue). I personally favor the Oxford comma
because it helps avoid ambiguities, especially in lists that
are longer and more complex, but I’m not dogmatic
about it. If you want to run the risk of confusing your
reader just to avoid a single keystroke, that’s your prerog-
ative (but note that, in this journal, Oxford commas will
be doggedly inserted by proofreaders hewing to ABA
style guides).
Overused Five-Dollar Words
Mark Twain is attributed with saying a lot of things
that he didn’t actually say, and one of them is that you
shouldn’t use a ve-dollar word when a fty-cent word
will do. Regardless of where the quote originated, it
remains sound advice for anyone trying to communi-
cate clearly and unamboyantly. Even better advice is to
stay away from those ve-dollar words that tend to be
overused by college-educated writers—words like myriad,
copious, and plethora. These words have the disadvan-
tage of being fancy-sounding without the advantage of
adding meaning to your sentence. In fact, all three words
could be replaced by the word “many,” or better yet by
a word or phrase that would impart additional meaning.
Scare Quotes
The rst draft of almost every article I edit comes riddled
with scare quotes that need to be painstakingly excised
(Professor Circo’s two-part article on the Supreme Court
was a welcome exception!). By “scare quotes,” I am refer-
ring to “quotation marks” that are intended to indicate
that a particular “word” or “phrase” is being used either
as a “term of art” or in some ironic sense or to indicate
gures of speech or for a few other possible reasons. It’s
an “innocent” practice that is based in “good intentions.”
But it’s also a “slippery slope” that yields “awkward
results” and should thus be avoided.
N.B., however: do not confuse scare quotes with quota-
tion marks legitimately used when “a word or term is not
used functionally but is referred to as the word or term
itself . . . .” See Chicago Manual of Style 7.63. Lawyers
frequently dene terms, of course, and when they do, the
terms should be “either italicized or enclosed in quotation
marks.” Id. But the quotes or italics should be dropped
on subsequent mentions of the dened term.
Professional writing can be a bit of a drag, and it’s easy
to rely on clichés to ll up space. George Orwell dened
clichés as “strips of words [that] have been set in order
by someone else,” but I would expand that denition to
include tropes that have been repeatedly used by one’s
peers. Examples that I see a lot in my role as editor
include using the phrase “pitfalls to avoid” in the title
of an article and opening with a Yogi Berra quote. It’s
almost impossible to avoid clichés altogether, especially
in a rst draft. But weeding them out will give your writ-
ing more punch.
Don’t Sweat Over Grammar—Too Much
My own editor nudged me, after reading a rst draft of
John Foust
By John Foust

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