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Legal Writing Handbook

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I. Writing In The Law Office (cont.)

B. Common Grammar Problems (cont.)

Split infinitives.

It is impossible to split an infinitive in Latin. Therefore, prescriptivists argue, we should not separate "to" from the rest of the verb. Under this logic, the introduction to Star Trek:

to boldly go where no man has gone before

is incorrect. But it sure sounds better than saying:

to go boldly where no man has gone before.

However, there is no actual rule of grammar against splitting an infinitive when style requires it.

Prepositional phrases ending a sentence.

It is impossible to end a Latin sentence with a preposition. Even the most poorly educated Roman would not have done such a thing. The Latin rule is the functional equivalent of an English rule that you should never end a sentence with the word "the."

In English, however, a preposition is often separated from its object. Worse yet, prepositions are also used as parts of verbs.

"To look out" is different from "to look."

You may scream, "Look out!" to a person in danger, even though you end your sentence with a preposition.

If you are still confused, consider this story attributed to Winston Churchill:

An editor once "corrected" Churchill's writing to move a preposition from the end of a sentence. Churchill restored the original, noting that this was the sort of "bloody nonsense" up with which he would not put. After that, many versions of this story began to circulate. Churchill was again edited. This time by those who felt such a refined man as Churchill should not have used the term "bloody." In many reference books you will see "arrant pedantry," or "nonsense" or even "English."

What do you think he said?

In 1762, Bishop Robert Lowth wrote "A Short Introduction to English Grammar." That book created a number of arbitrary rules, including the one about prepositions at the end of sentences. Bishop Lowth was not an absolutist on the point, but many who came after him were absolutists.

Modern grammarians, for the most part, see no merit in this so called rule. George Curme, a renowned student of the grammar of Germanic languages, states that a preposition "often has a characteristic position at the end of a sentence or clause." This is particularly true with short sentences and questions:

What do you write with?

This is the pen I write with.

But see William Safire, Fumblerules, who states unequivocally that this "rule" exists and should be strictly followed. For the proposition that Safire, in general, is a pretentious blowhard, see Steven Pinker's article in The New Republic, "Grammar Puss" (1/31/94).

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