Mechanics of Writing: Part Two

Mechanics of Writing: Part Two


In this second article on the topic of writing, let us take a look at the principles around capitalization, grammar (vague pronouns, subject-verb agreement), spelling, symbols, and quotations. We will also revisit punctuation, which was the primary topic of “The Mechanics of Writing, A Series – Part One.” However, here we will focus on the apostrophe, exclamation mark, and quotation mark, while revisiting the slash.

The most common and basic rule is that capital letters are used to begin a sentence and identify a proper noun. In the legal realm, it is common practice to capitalize Court when designating the U.S. Supreme Court or the highest court in any jurisdiction. Here are additional rules regarding capitalization as outlined in Bryan Garner’s The Redbook:

  • Capitalize the first word of a direct quotation if it is a full sentence. Do not capitalize an indirect quotation.
  • Capitalize the first word in a question or rule, even if it does not begin the sentence. Example: I need to call my paralegal – What is her direct extension?
  • From a general standpoint, use capitalization sparingly. However, always be consistent with capitalization throughout a document. Be aware of unique capitalization terms such as PowerPoint or trademarks like Kleenex.
  • As paralegals, we often write out a full name followed by a subsequent reference to the name in short form within the same document. Capitalize the short form of governmental agencies, officers, and corporate entities. Example: Platt Township (later referenced as Township) or Douglas Corporation (later referenced as Corporation).
  • Capitalize the word Rule when referring to a specific number, but not without the number. Example: Rule 12 identifies the dimensions. The rule identifies the dimensions.

Bryan Garner suggests that we avoid writing in all caps unless mandated by a specific statute or in select language such as is found in a warranty disclaimer. The preferred writing style is to use bold type in upper and lower case.1 

As a final note of precaution, always follow any particular rules prescribed by the courts or governmental agencies. For example, some state statutes are required to be cited in small caps.

In formal writing, the rules of grammar are followed more strictly. Bryan Garner’s The Redbook outlines the following grammatical rules:


Elementary school grammar lessons taught us that a pronoun substitutes for a noun (its antecedent). Vague pronouns may be confusing, especially if multiple parties or things are being referenced throughout a document.

  • A pronoun should agree in number with its immediate antecedent, either singular or plural, based on the noun it is referencing. If there are two or more singular nouns (antecedents) joined by or or nor, the pronoun should be singular. If two or more nouns (antecedents) are joined by and, the pronoun should be plural. Example: The judge and the district attorney agreed that they would delay the trial. 
  • A pronoun must agree in gender with its antecedent.
  • Use that to refer to groups of people; use which to refer to things.

Always be clear as to what the pronoun is referring to. An individual may find it better practice to repeat the noun itself.

Of note, possessive pronouns do not use an apostrophe! Example: its, yours, hers, ours, theirs. A common spelling error is to confuse its (possessive) with the contraction it’s (it is).

A second frequent error found in formal writing is subjectverb agreement. Legal topics are often complicated, and sentences are unduly long. Make every attempt to keep related words (subject and verb) together.

  • Use a singular verb following a singular subject. Either or neither used as the subject dictate a singular verb.
  • Use a plural verb following a plural or compound subject. The pronouns both, few, many, others, and several dictate the use of a plural verb.

Spelling can be difficult for some. The English language has many exceptions to its spelling rules. A best practice is to always use your computer’s spell-check; however, do not solely rely on your computer. From our early school days, we may remember the basic rule of “i before e, except after c” or “when sounding like an a as in neighbor or weigh.” There are exceptions; thus, always have a dictionary nearby as a necessary writing resource.

  • Most nouns are made plural by adding s or es. If the word ends in y preceded by a consonant, change the y to i and add es. Example: jury becomes juries.
  • Remember not to form the plural of a name by using an apostrophe. Example: the Smiths or the Torberts.
  • There are a few words that may be spelled in two different acceptable forms. Example: memorandum is acceptable as memoranda or memorandums.
  • Form the plural of numbers by adding s. Example:1970s.
  • Form the plural of word abbreviations by adding ’s. Example: L.L.C.’s.

For paralegals working with international clients, be aware of spelling variations. For example, compare the more common American spelling with the British spelling in the following instances:

American: analyze  British: analyse
American: misdemeanor    British: misdemeanour
American: canceled British: cancelled
American: caliber British: calibre
American: judgment British: judgement

The section sign (§) is frequently used in legal writing. Use the symbol (§) unless it begins a sentence. Always spell out section at the beginning of a sentence. Use double symbols (§§) when referring to two or more sections.

The Redbook offers these additional tips for using symbols in legal writing:

  • Use the $ (dollar) symbol and the % (percentage) symbol with numerals; write out the symbols when used alone or to begin a sentence. Example: Fifty percent of the jury pool were women.
  • Use the @ symbol only in email addresses and social media (Twitter).
  • Use the ampersand (&) in business names that use the symbol but not if the company uses the word and. However, in writing case names, an ampersand may replace the word and.
  • Trademarked words should be capitalized without the trademark symbol included. Example: Apple owns the rights to Apple trademarks.

Use quotations cautiously. Be aware of overquoting. Use a quotation if it is precisely on point to your position or if it is highly persuasive to your argument.

When quoting, be sure to always identify the source. Write the quotation word for word and be critically accurate.

Use quotations succinctly. No one wants to read through a full page of block quotations.

Per Bryan Garner’s The Redbook, “[N]ever begin a paragraph with a quotation.” Remember, as a skillful writer, you want each paragraph ideally to begin with a topic sentence. Introduce your reader to what is to come.



The apostrophe has two common uses: to show possession and to indicate an omitted letter to form a contraction. The most common misuse of an apostrophe, according to Garner’s Legal Writing in Plain English, is using the apostrophe to create a plural noun. Example: "The evidence shows to purchaser’s a settlement has been reached" versus "the evidence shows to purchasers a settlement has been reached."

Good news for paralegals! Contractions were long discouraged in formal writing, but this is no longer the case. The trend toward readability and writing as an individual speaks has taken hold.

Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark is not popular in legal writing. However, maintain the exclamation mark in all quotes. An exclamation mark abutting a word may be used to feign shock or mockery. Example: The plaintiff was too kind(!) not to share the discovery.

Quotation Mark(s)

It is important to place quotation marks correctly in relation to other punctuation. Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, whereas colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks. • Use quotation marks when quoting a passage shorter
than 50 words.

  • Use quotation marks to mean “so-called.” Do not write out the term so-called and use quotation marks.
  • Use quotation marks when providing a definition. Example: “Malice” means “the intention or desire to do evil.”
  • Use single quotation marks around a quotation within a quotation.

Be careful not to get into the writing habit of using quotation marks to indicate emphasis. Example: There is not “any” reason why the session was delayed. Also, avoid using quotation marks for sarcasm. Example: The “damage” was only a bruised forearm.


Refer to our “Writing Series – Part One” for using the preferred hyphen or an en-dash in place of a slash. However, there are instances when a slash is acceptable.

  • Use a slash for conventional abbreviations. Example: d/b/a referring to doing business as or w/o referring to without.
  • Use a slash to mean either/or. Example: Paralegal students take classes for a pass/fail grade.

In summary, writing rules can be complicated. The best practice is to invest in a couple of reliable writing resources. Legal, formal writing is meant to be exact. Do not guess. Take a few minutes to double-check yourself whenever in doubt. Always review your work and read each version at least twice. Moreover, when preparing court filings, remember to always comply with court rules. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential, but perhaps more important may be the formatting and the content.

1 Garner, Brian A. Legal Writing in Plain English (Second Edition)

In Part Three of our writing series, we will look at the following: (1) document formatting, including the use of italics, bold font, and underlining; (2) writing in active versus passive voice; and (3) avoiding legalese – writing with clarity.

About the author:

Jackie Van Dyke, CP
Van Dyke_Jackie_pic_2019.jpg

Jackie Van Dyke, CP, is a virtual paralegal and graduate-level instructor in The George Washington University (GWU) Paralegal Studies program. She is a legal writing coach and paralegal mentor. Jackie earned a Paralegal Certificate in General Litigation from the University of San Diego, and her Master’s degree in Paralegal Studies from GWU. Jackie is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the Organization of Legal Professionals.