With Punctuation, It’s the Little Things

Punctuation RulesPlease welcome back Keri Clapp, professor and tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox, to discuss the importance of proper punctuation, as well as strategies to ensure your writing is clear and leaves a good impression on your reader.

Commas, periods, and semi-colons may be the smallest marks on the page, but they can cause big problems. Punctuation is critical to clear communication because it serves as a visual cue telling the reader what you are saying and how you are saying it. Incorrect communication can confuse your message–you may have seen in the cartoon joke, “Let’s eat grandma! Let’s eat, grandma! Punctuation saves lives!”

Beyond confusing your intended meaning, incorrect punctuation is “like waving a red flag to a bull.” The phrase is an allusion to a matador waving a red flag during a bullfight to get the animal to charge; it refers to a willfully infuriating or aggravating provocation. When a legally trained reader sees a punctuation error in a piece of writing, that error is like the proverbial red flag drawing the reader’s attention to the mistake. Don’t let your readers conclude that you are careless or unskilled; learn how to catch common errors and upgrade your writing.

Stick to traditional rules

Legal writing is generally expected to conform to expected rules of punctuation and grammar. Therefore, legal communication is not the place to use acronyms such as ASAP or LMK. Avoid text-speak at all times. This does not mean that you need to be unnecessarily flowery; there is a strong preference for plain language in legal writing but that does not mean colloquial language.

Similarly, don’t follow trends. As an example, tried and true punctuation practice is to keep punctuation (like the period) inside quotation marks, yet an increasing number of students have started putting commas and periods outside the quotation marks. Some commentators call this the logical or British style; it may also be a result of the looser style of editing favored on the Web and in emails. Trust me that following this trend will jump out to your legal writing professor and to prospective or current employers, and not in a good way.

Learn to find fragments

A complete sentence has a subject (the actor in the sentence), a predicate (the verb or action), and expresses a complete idea (it can stand alone). In contrast, a fragment is an incomplete sentence. To see if you have fragments in your writing, remember the basics and check to see if each of your sentences can stand alone.

Find a resource

Find a good resource to consult. Google is useful but anyone who spends a lot of time writing should have also put in time using a volume like The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, The Chicago Manual of Style, or one of the many volumes written specifically to guide law students and lawyers. These resources are also available online and are worth your time.

Listen to feedback

If your legal writing professor identifies problems in your writing, take that as a red flag for you to pay attention. If you did not get feedback, consider asking your professor or another good writer to review your work and give you an honest assessment of problems, including punctuation errors. Make sure that you check your school’s policy on academic honesty and independent work; you are likely prohibited from having someone help with editing work before a paper is graded.

Learn to do better

You have likely been told to proofread, proofread, and proofread again; but what if you just don’t recognize the mistakes you are making or if you get feedback that your skills need improving?

If writing skills like grammar and punctuation do not come naturally to you, take steps now to improve those skills. Your first stop should be your law school’s academic success or support office; ask what resources they recommend. You can also investigate independent resources such as CALI (provided by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) or subscription services such as Core Grammar for Lawyers.

By the way, it turns out that the color of the flag being waved doesn’t matter to the bull; similarly, the type of grammatical or punctuation error doesn’t matter to the reader. In other words, if you make an error, you will attract the wrong kind of attention to your writing.

Don’t ignore deficiencies in your writing. Poor writing will trip you up in your legal writing classes and will follow you into your job search and career. With a little bit of effort, you can hone your skills and become a strong legal writer.

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About Keri Clapp

Keri Bischoff Clapp is a law school and bar exam tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Keri’s love for writing led her to journalism school and then directly to law school at Penn Law, which she absolutely loved. Keri was an executive editor and published author of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

After law school, she learned many life and professional lessons by clerking for a woman federal District Court judge in Philadelphia. Keri then joined a large Philadelphia law firm as a litigation associate and later worked as in-house and trial counsel for a U.S. government office.

The next act of Keri’s career brought her into the classroom to teach undergraduates and law school students. Among other courses, she has taught business law, legal research and writing, and bar exam preparation.

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