Grammar and Punctuation

AuthorNeil Guthrie
chapter three
rammar and Punctuation
1) Avoid the Adverb
The novelist Graham Greene a master of lean, mean prose
called adverbs “beastly.1 (In spite of the –ly ending, that’s an adjec-
tive.) Think of the adverb quite, which is either ambiguous or weak:
quite good can mean “better than expected,” “something a bit less
than good,” “actually good,” “very good.” In any case, it lacks oomph.
Or indeed very, which the nineteenth-century newspaper editor
William Allen White called “the weakest word in the English lan-
guage.”2 By way of example is the cautionary note that circulated by
email at my f‌irm that This matter is very conf‌idential (in red, boldface
type!). Some matters may be more sensitive or interesting or sal-
acious or newsworthy than others, but as a matter of law and legal
1 Ways of Escape (Toronto, ON: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1980) at 225.
2 See The Guardian and Observer Style Guide, “V” (5 November 2015), The
Guardian, online:
See also Christian Lorentzen, “Could We Just Lose the Adverb (Already)?”
New York (18 May 2016), online:
lose-the-adverb-already.html; Ross Guberman, “Adverbs on Trial: Innocent on
Two Counts, but Guilty on Three More” Legal Writing Pro (13 November 2014),
counts-but-guilty-on-three-more; Jacob Gershman, “Why Adverbs, Maligned
by Many, Flourish in the American Legal System” The Wall Street Journal
(8October 2014), online:
Guthrie's Guide to Better Legal Writing
ethics they can’t be more (or less) conf‌idential. As lawyers, we owe
the same duty of conf‌identiality to each client, and the standard is
as high as it gets.
As a matter of English grammar, the very conf‌idential warning
is as bad as it gets. It’s like saying something is very unique. It’s
unique (or conf‌idential) or it isn’t. These adjectives are absolutes.
(Some readers have suggested that highly conf‌idential has its uses,
in signalling a particularly sensitive matter, but I’m not buying it.)
Or, as a partner once said to me of a research task, “This is somewhat
urgent.” I was about to reply, “Oh, so it isn’t urgent,” but anticipating
a sense-of-humour failure, kept quiet and just got on with the job.
In legal writing, adverbs are often used as qualif‌iers or f‌illers. I’m
thinking of words like generally, clearly, unfortunately. In opinions,
generally may have a valid place as a signal of potential uncertainty
in the law (although even there it can be overused when it’s a sub-
stitute for actual analysis). In an article or blog, try to eliminate gen-
erally. You’re not writing an opinion (and there will be a boilerplate
disclaimer saying that your piece is not to be taken as legal advice
anyway), so all it does is soften your impact.
If you must say clearly, odds are the point isn’t clear at all. The
word is just padding or an attempt to make the best of a bad job.
Even worse is unfortunately, which I see a lot in student memos
(Unfortunately, there appears to be no case law on point . . .). It’s not
unfortunate, it just is.
Kindly, used as synonym for please, is limp (or passive-aggressive).
Another weak one is strictly, which is meant to sound tough but
isn’t. Think of strictly prohibited, which is frequently seen in tooth-
less email notices: “This email message is privileged and conf‌iden-
tial. Any unauthorized use or disclosure is strictly prohibited.” By
what? Sender, the horse is out of the barn door.
Strictly prohibited seems to be especially popular in the regula-
tions of Nova Scotia. Some choice excerpts from the Boxing Authority
Regulations, NS Reg 155/2002, for example (emphasis added):
184 It is strictly prohibited for boxers to practice “blood boosting”, the
intravenous administration of blood or blood products to enhance the
boxer’s performance, for non-medical or recreational purposes.
Chapter Three: Grammar and Punctuation
185 (1) The administering or use of drugs or stimulants, including
smelling salts or ammonia, either before or during a boxing match, to
or by a boxer is strictly prohibited.
187 The use of iron-based coagulants such as “Monsel’s Solution” or
any of its derivatives is strictly prohibited and the use of any such coagu-
lant is cause for immediate disqualif‌ication.
As opposed to loosely prohibited, somewhat prohibited, only a little bit
prohibited? Just say something is prohibited and set out the penalty
for violating that.
As bad is strictly forbidden, often seen in warnings not to repro-
duce or download material — and in the English versions of Quebec
A common drinking-cup is strictly forbidden. [Regulation respecting
sanitary conditions in industrial or other camps, CQLR c S-2.1, r.5.1,
s 11]
Adding strictly runs the risk of exposing your threat as empty if you
can’t back it up. Just who is policing shared use of cups in the indus-
trial camps of Quebec anyway?
And please don’t misuse literally as a mild form of emphasis. It
means “as opposed to f‌iguratively.” It would be correct to say I have
literally got to run if the starting gun for your ten-kilometre race is
about to go of‌f; incorrect if all you mean is “I must go.
Another adverb that is often weak is even. It can be used ef‌fect-
ively to indicate a special or unusual case (This is a question that
even a f‌irst-year law student could answer) but it is often employed
to add an air of the special where there is none, or not much: The
sequel is even better than the f‌irst in the series; She liked the quo-
tation from Lord Denning so much she even had it tattooed on her
back; Articling students are of‌fered taxi chits, gym memberships,
and even iPads.
The adverb is unavoidable when you want to modify an adjec-
tive. Our American friends notwithstanding, it is wrong to say
real good; it must be really good — but always think whether the
adverb adds anything, or just weakens the ef‌fect. As linguistics
prof Geof‌frey Nunberg puts it, “Adverbs tend to show people at

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