- That, which; restrictive clauses; dropping “that”
- Double possessive
- Ellipsis—the rhetorical device
- Ending with prepositions
- Hopefully, sentence adverbs
Let Me Say This About That
What is the story with “that” and “which”?
One more time now: This is a brain that is on drugs. This is your brain, which is on drugs. Any questions?
Use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause — one that defines the word it modifies by telling the reader which one you mean (that one). A restrictive clause is necessary. Without it the reader would not know what you mean.
Use “which” to introduce a non-restrictive clause, which describes but does not define, usually because the reader already knows which one you mean. If a non-restrictive clause is deleted, the essential meaning of the sentence does not change.
“The opinion that Justice Scalia wrote was surprisingly clear.” (There were a number of opinions, one of them was written by Scalia, and that one was clear. If you drop the clause the reader will not know which opinion you mean.)
“The opinion, which Justice Scalia wrote, was surprisingly clear.” (The reader already knows you are talking about the majority opinion; your main point is that it was clear. The relative clause merely provides some other information)
“The rule applies to law firms that overcharge their clients.” (The rule applies to some law firms. The clause restricts the meaning to those firms.)
“The rule applies to law firms, which overcharge their clients.” (The rule applies to all law firms.)
A non-restrictive clause is always set off by commas (or by parentheses or dashes); a restrictive clause never is.
Other pronouns introduce relative clauses: who, whose, whom, where, and when. No matter what pronoun starts it, a non-restrictive clause must be set off by commas. “I deposed the plaintiff, who was nervous.” “I deposed the plaintiff who started this class action.” “I met him in a place where the wind blew off the lake.” “I met him in Chicago, where the wind blew off the lake.”
(A note related to this related note: Always use “who” for specific persons; you may, but don’t have to, use “that,” but not “which,” when speaking generically. “A lawyer that (or who) understands computers can save, or waste, valuable time.”
A pronoun that is the object of a restrictive clause (which will never be “which”) can very often be dropped. “The opinion Justice Scalia wrote was surprisingly clear.” (You also could say “Justice Scalia’s opinion … ,” eliminating the relative clause, but that does nothing to advance today’s lesson.)
In some exceptional circumstances, “which” may be used to introduce a restrictive clause — when there has just been a “that” in the sentence. “He suddenly announced that the car which ran into him was an Edsel.” It would have been okay to say “… that the car that ran into him . . .,” but putting one “that” so close to another would have sounded awkward. Remember, if the pronoun had been the object of the relative clause, we could have just dropped it: “He suddenly announced that the car he was driving was a Porsche.”
Speaking of dropping “that,” when can you?
This is almost always a matter of taste. As a general rule, don’t use “that” as a conjunction unless the sentence wouldn’t sound good without it.
“He said that he would go” and “He said he would go” both are grammatically correct, but why put in the extra word? Associated Press style is never to use “that” with a form of “to say.”
It may sound better to get rid of “that” by changing the form of the sentence: “The statute requires that we file our responses by Tuesday,” can be changed to “The statute requires us to file our responses by Tuesday.”
“That” may be necessary to clarify a time element. “She said on June 12 we would meet and confer.” Does that mean “She said on June 12 that we would meet and confer.” or, “She said that on June 12 we would meet and confer?” Whichever, a better solution is to move the time element: “On June 12 she said we would meet and confer,” or “She said we would meet and confer on June 12.”
“That” may be necessary to eliminate “temporary ambiguity.” “Jones believed that the lawyer representing his doctor meant well.” Without “that,” the reader might at first think Jones believed something the lawyer was saying.
When do you say “an employee of the plaintiff’s,” rather than “an employee of the plaintiff”?
This question concerns the “double genitive” (which has nothing to do with cross-dressing). Most of us know how to use it, but we don’t really know why. “Genitive” doesn’t mean much in English, because we don’t decline nouns as they do in other languages, but the genitive case is the possessive form of a noun. We form possessives either with an apostrophe s (‘s) or by using “of” before the noun that something belongs to. When we do both, as in “an employee of the plaintiff’s,” we get the double genitive, which is also known as the “double possessive.”
So when do you use it? When you are talking about part of a group that belongs to someone.
If the plaintiff has many employees, you may speak of “an employee of the plaintiff’s,” or “some employees of the plaintiff’s.” When you are speaking of all the plaintiff’s employees, you would say just that: “all the plaintiff’s employees”; or “all employees of the plaintiff.” If the plaintiff has only one employee, you would say “the employee of the plaintiff,” or “plaintiff’s employee.”
When the group is implicitly limited, the simple possessive is correct: “My client told me he would not be willing to accept your offer.” That doesn’t mean you have only one client; it means you have only one client in this case. On the other hand, when the group is not limited, you do use the double genitive: “A client of mine told me he could get tickets to the game.”
* * * *
An opposing counsel and I recently agreed that I would contact the court about an extension of time. Did we agree to “my contacting the court,” or to “me contacting the court”?
Once again, some grammatical terms may help, but maybe not. In “my contacting the court,” “contacting” is a gerund, a noun, and it is modified by the possessive pronoun “my.” In “me contacting the court,” “contacting” is a participle, used as an adjective to modify the pronoun “me.” You don’t need to worry about the gerund and participle stuff; the point is simply that each phrase contains a noun modified by an adjective.
So, the question is, which noun is the object of the preposition “to”—“contacting” or “me”? The answer, of course, is “contacting.” You didn’t agree to “me”; you agreed to “contacting.”
If you say, “I saw him waiting for the bus,” you mean you saw him, not his waiting. On the other hand, you might say, “I saw his waiting for the bus as a sign that he did not want to ride with me.” There, the object of the verb “saw” is “waiting,” not “him.”
The word “ellipsis” refers to two things: the omission of words, and the punctuation mark used to indicate that you have omitted words from a quotation. The punctuation mark is three periods, with a space before, a space after, and spaces between (“ … “).
To illustrate the various rules for omitting words from quotations, let’s use the first three sentences of the statement of facts in the Ninth Circuit opinion affirming the conviction of Gregory Gordon. Gordon broke into Ronald Reagan’s house on Independence Day, declared the former President to be the anti-Christ, and threatened to kill him.
On July 4, 1990, at approximately 3:30 p.m., Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan in Bel Air, California. He entered the house through the front door and passed through the foyer. As Mr. Gordon exited to the backyard, he was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.
Now for the rules:
1. Use an ellipsis to indicate omitted words in the middle of a quote, whether or not it is a full sentence:
The court said the defendant “entered … through the front door.”
“He entered … through the front door and passed through the foyer.”
2. Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quote that is not a full sentence:
The court said the defendant made it “through the foyer” before he was apprehended.
3. Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning of a quote. If that means you are starting a sentence with a word that was not capitalized in the original, use brackets to indicate that you have changed to an initial capital letter:
“Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan in Bel Air, California.”
“[H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.”
4. Use an ellipsis to indicate an omission at the end of a sentence. Some authorities say the ellipsis goes after the period, which is not separated from the last word quoted:
“Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan… .”
The Bluebook, however, says the ellipsis should take the place of the omitted words and come between the last quoted word and the period:
“Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan … .”
5. Use an ellipsis to indicate an omission at the beginning of a sentence that does not start the quote:
“He entered the house through the front door and passed through the foyer… . [H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.”
6. When you omit words both at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next, use one ellipsis to indicate both omissions:
“He entered the house through the front door … . [H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.”
Once again, the Bluebook rule puts the ellipsis between “door” and the period at the end of the first sentence, letting the reader know that words were omitted from that sentence. The bracketed “[H]” lets the reader know words were omitted from the beginning of the second sentence too.
7. You should NOT use an ellipsis to jump sentences, as in, “He entered the house through the front door and … exited to the backyard.”
Either use two quotes or turn the quoted material into sentence fragments so you can apply #2 above:
The court said the defendant “entered the house through the front door” and “exited to the backyard.”
Never split an infinite, end a sentence with a preposition, sit too close to the TV, or extend a handshake to a woman. Some rules die hard. But a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with. And good writers know how to properly split infinitives without offending anyone.
Some verbs naturally go with a preposition. But a preposition naturally goes with its object. The clearest writing does not separate elements that go together. Sometimes that is possible:
I am referring to the third interrogatory.
But sometimes it’s not possible to keep all the elements together—when you have a prepositional phrase in a subordinate clause, for example:
I know the interrogatory you are referring to.
I know the interrogatory to which you are referring.
Or when the prepositional phrase is in a question:
Which interrogatory are you referring to?
To which interrogatory are you referring?
When you separate elements that naturally go together, you make the reader mentally (and unconsciously) reconstruct the sentence. You must decide which way of writing the sentence will make that reconstruction easier. In these examples, I would keep “refer” and “to” together and end with a preposition.
When the verb is going to be separated from the preposition anyway—usually because the verb has an object that comes after i —you’re probably better off putting the preposition with its object:
We discussed the tone to write the letter in.
The preposition “in” just hangs there. It is next to neither the verb nor its own object. Rearrange the sentence to put it with one or the other:
We discussed the tone in which to write the letter.
Some authorities and most elementary school teachers say you should not use “hopefully” to mean “I hope,” “one hopes,” or “it is to be hoped.” Unfortunately, those authorities are foolishly ignoring the distinction between regular adverbs, which are called “adverbs of manner,” and sentence adverbs. In the preceding sentence, for example, “unfortunately” was a sentence adverb, while “foolishly” was a regular adverb. “Hopefully” can be either kind.
Sentence adverbs, as the name suggests, modify a whole sentence or clause. Adverbs of manner modify a verb or another modifier by saying how something was done. Some common sentence adverbs in addition to “hopefully” and “unfortunately” are “obviously,” “luckily,” “finally,” “significantly,” and the ever-popular “basically.”
Some sentence adverbs have a slightly different form than their regular adverb counterparts:
Regrettably, opposing counsel picked up on my mistake. (sentence adverb—that the mistake was discovered was regrettable)
Opposing counsel regretfully confessed her own mistake. (adverb of manner—she confessed in a regretful way)
But no matter what your elementary school teacher would have you believe, one word such as “hopefully” can be both a sentence adverb and a regular adverb.
Note that sentence adverbs do not have to come at the beginning of the sentence:
Opposing counsel regrettably picked up on my mistake.
But careful writers will place a sentence adverb such as “hopefully” at the beginning of the sentence to avoid ambiguity. Thus, these two sentences have different meanings, which are indicated by the placement of the adverb and the use of a comma:
Happily, I did my work.
(It’s a good thing I did my work.)
I did my work happily.
(I whistled while I worked.)
1. However is one of a class of adverbs called “sentence adverbs,” which can look so much like conjunctions that they are sometimes called “conjunctive adverbs.” However is not a conjunction like “and,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.” Conjunctions are used to join independent clauses–clauses that could be whole sentences. However cannot join independent clauses.
You cannot say:
Plaintiff complained our responses were late, however the court accepted them.
To use those words in that order, a semi-colon or a period has to come before however:
Plaintiff complained our responses were late; however, the court accepted them.
Plaintiff complained our responses were late. However, the court accepted them.
You could use a conjunction:
Plaintiff complained our responses were late, but the court accepted them.
Note that you cannot move a conjunction; it has to go between the independent clauses. A conjunctive adverb can move:
Plaintiff complained our responses were late; the court, however, accepted them.
(We often incorrectly use other sentence adverbs to join independent clauses: also, consequently, further, accordingly, thus, similarly.)
2. Note that however is always separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
3. Many sources say never to start a sentence with however unless you are using it to mean “in whatever way,” as in, “However the accident happened, defendant was not responsible.”
This rule is broken so often that we should ask its rationale. Technically, however emphasizes contrast, generally focusing on whatever went before the however. When however begins a sentence, what follows should contrast with or contradict the whole preceding sentence. In the example above about the late responses, the court’s acceptance of the responses doesn’t really contrast with the plaintiff’s claim. The court could have agreed they were late but accepted them anyway. Indeed purists would say that however is misused in, “Plaintiff complained our responses were late. However, the court ruled they were timely.”
Whether the court ruled the responses timely or simply accepted them, these purists would demand that however come after “the court” to show that the court is in contrast with the plaintiff. Because this is so hard to figure out, purists advise us to play it safe and avoid the error by never starting a sentence with however.
The other rationale sometimes given for not starting a sentence with however is the supposed confusion that will result because the reader does not know if you mean “on the other hand” or “in whatever way.” From this rationale comes the equally rigid corollary that however at the beginning of a sentence means “in whatever way.” I don’t know about you, but I rarely use however to mean “in whatever way,” and when I do I usually follow with a subject and verb (“However the accident happened, . . .”), not a comma. I don’t see much chance of confusion.
With all due respect to the purists, I suggest you use however to mean “on the other hand” or “nevertheless” just as you would use “on the other hand” or “nevertheless.” If you want to emphasize a particular element of the sentence, put however after that element. But if you’re saying something that generally runs counter to the previous sentence, start with however, “nevertheless,” or a true conjunction such as “but” or “yet.”
Don’t end a sentence with however, because it makes the contrast an afterthought. However you use however, however, read it through once yourself to make sure your meaning is clear and is what you intended.
1. “Self” added to the end of a pronoun makes the pronoun reflexive. A reflexive pronoun—myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves—has three uses:
(a) As a “true” reflexive, where the subject and object of an action are the same person or thing. The reflexive is used for the object, either of a verb or of a preposition:
She hurt herself.
Counsel has brought all this on himself.
(b) As an intensive for emphasis:
I finally got in to see the judge herself.
Donald Trump himself called to say Happy New Year.
(c) As a combination reflexive-intensive to indicate that the actor was acting alone. In this use, the pronoun is the object of the preposition “by,” though sometimes the “by” is dropped:
I wrote this by myself.
I wrote this myself.
Because a reflexive pronoun is an object that “reflects back” to the subject of the action, you cannot use a reflexive pronoun when it does not refer to the actor. Yet many of us do just that, often at the end of a letter:
NOT If you have any questions, please call Justice Thomas or myself.
The subject of the verb “call” is an implied “you,” to which “myself” will not refer back. Just use the pronoun in the objective case:
If you have any questions, please call Justice Thomas or me.
Similarly, in the reflexive-intensive of (c), the subject of the verb must be what is acting alone. Thus, you cannot say, “This was written by myself.” Instead, say “This was written by me.” (Of course, you should really say “I wrote this.”)
2. Here’s a rule that works: If you can use a pronoun that is not in the reflexive case to say what you mean, you should. Check all the examples above. You can’t eliminate the reflexive (–self) pronoun without changing or destroying the meaning:
“She hurt her” means something different from “She hurt herself.”
“I finally got in to see the judge her” is nonsense.
“I wrote this by me” also is meaningless .
But if you replace “myself” with “me” in the Justice Thomas sentence, it sounds fine. So that is what you should do.
3. A reflexive pronoun used as an intensive is not set off by commas:
The Judge himself discovered the controlling case.
NOT The Judge, himself, discovered the controlling case.
4. A related point, sort of: When using a pronoun as part of a compound subject or compound object, you still use the subjective case for a subject and the objective case for an object:
My client and I were shocked and dismayed.
NOT My client and me were shocked and dismayed.
He and I were shocked and dismayed.
NOT Him and I were shocked and dismayed.
Please come to lunch with Justice Thomas and me.
NOT Please come to lunch with Justice Thomas and I.
Remember, use the pronoun you would use if the other half of the compound noun were not there. You would never say, “Please come to lunch with I,” would you?
Q: Lucy and Ricky own a company. Is it “Lucy and Ricky’s company” or “Lucy’s and Ricky’s company”?
It is Lucy and Ricky’s company.
If Lucy and Ricky jointly own two companies, they are Lucy and Ricky’s companies (or Ricky and Lucy’s companies).
If Lucy owns one company individually and Ricky another, they are Lucy’s and Ricky’s companies.
As a general rule, individual possession requires making each noun in the sequence possessive, while joint possession requires making only the last noun in the sequence possessive.
Be aware that either construction may be confusing, especially to someone who is not thoroughly familiar with this rule. You may need to change the structure of the sentence:
If Lucy and Ricky own two companies together, you can call them “the companies that Lucy and Ricky own.”
If they each own one company, you can call them, “Lucy’s company and Ricky’s company.”
Joint possession may also be ambiguous (especially if you inhale):
I saw Lucy and Ricky’s child.
Did I see two people—Ricky’s child and Lucy? Or did I see only one person, who is the child of Ricky and Lucy. If I saw two, I should change the order to make clear that the child is Ricky’s only. If I saw one, I might want to break the rule and call little Ricky “Lucy’s and Ricky’s child.”
Of course, if both little Ricky and little Lucy were there, breaking the rule would create more ambiguity, since “I saw Lucy’s and Ricky’s children” could mean one child was Lucy’s individually and one was Ricky’s. If I add a number, however, I might be able to eliminate the ambiguity:
I saw Lucy’s and Ricky’s two children.
Again, changing the construction may be a better solution:
I saw the Ricardos’ children.
And if one child was Lucy’s and one Ricky’s, I can say that:
I saw Lucy’s child and Ricky’s child.
The general rule does not fit with pronouns, which must be possessive whether the possession is individual or joint:
I called his and Lucy’s client.
I called his and my clients.
This is because forming the possessive of a pronoun involves more than just adding apostrophe-s. Because these sentences are a little awkward, however, you might prefer to change the construction:
He and I represent the Ricardos, whom I called on Tuesday.
Also, when you want to indicate individual possession with pronouns, you must put each possessive with what it possesses:
I called his client and Lucy’s client.
The so-called rules of grammar that forbid this practice is almost as dead as the Latin language that they came from. In Latin, as in many languages, an infinitive is one word, so it would be tough to split.
In his book “Style: Ten Lessons In Clarity And Grace,” Joseph Williams calls the prohibitions against split infinitives and final prepositions “optional rules,” because rules that good writers have been breaking for so long are no longer binding. On the other hand, as we have noted before, some of the pickiest readers are the ones we write for—judges, clerks and opposing counsel. These picky folks are just the sort who hold it against you when you do split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. So do so only for clarity or to avoid awkward phrasing.
1. “I wanted to quickly get back to you” means the same thing as “I wanted to get back to you quickly,” but it splits the infinitive. Don’t split the infinitive without a reason.
2. “I decided to quickly get back to you” is clear, while “I decided to get back to you quickly” is ambiguous, as is “I decided quickly to get back to you.” Maybe I decided quickly, maybe I got back to you quickly. Split the infinitive for clarity.
3. “I wanted to quickly contact all who attended the deposition” means something quite different from “I wanted to contact all who attended the deposition quickly.” The other alternatives—“I wanted quickly to contact all who attended the deposition,” and “I wanted to contact quickly all who attended the deposition”—are awkward. They sound like you’re trying to avoid splitting an infinitive.
4. Most authorities say never to split an infinitive with “never” or “not,” because it always sounds awkward. That is, “to never split” sounds more awkward than “never to split.” Because “not” and “never” generally go before the verbs they modify, clarity should not be a problem. “He asked never to see me again” clearly does not mean “He never asked to see me again.”
The subjunctive mood has several uses, but only one that I understand well enough to explain: It expresses a contrary-to-fact condition. A contrary-to-fact condition is distinguished from a simple condition, which is sometimes called a “noncommittal condition.”
Here is a simple condition, expressed in the indicative mood:
If she is a lawyer, she knows what a tort is.
Maybe she is a lawyer; maybe she isn’t. (See why it’s called “noncommittal”?) If she is, a given result follows. Here is a contrary-to-fact condition, expressed in the subjunctive:
If she were a lawyer, she would know what a tort is.
She is not a lawyer, so the subjunctive mood is used to express the contrary-to fact condition. Note that the result is also in the subjunctive, using “would.” Note also that the clause “what a tort is” is in the present tense—the entire sentence is in the present tense, but the present subjunctive looks like the past indicative.
And here is one common mistake (or two):
If she was a lawyer, she would know what a tort was.
This mistake is a product of one of the ways the subjunctive is formed—by “going back a tense” and always using the plural. Thus, to change the present indicative (“If she is a lawyer”) to the present subjunctive, you put the verb, “is,” in the past tense and in the plural. Writers often get confused because it doesn’t make sense to say “she were,” which puts a singular pronoun with an apparently plural verb. But they remember that the contrary-to-fact condition uses the past tense. (Rather, they think they remember that. The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. The present subjunctive looks like the past tense, just as it looks plural.) From this confusion comes the tendency to try to make the pronoun agree with the verb (she was), and then to make the tense of the condition agree with the tense of the result (she was … a tort was).
Here is another common mistake:
If she were there last Tuesday, she would have seen the accident.
Here the writer has remembered to use the plural of the past tense. But the subjunctive mood requires us to “go back a tense,” so that the past subjunctive looks like the past perfect indicative:
If she had been there last Tuesday, she would have seen the accident.
This is a past condition that is contrary to fact. She was not there last Tuesday. So we use the subjunctive. A simple past condition would be noncommittal and the result would be indicative, not subjunctive:
If she was there last Tuesday, she saw the accident.
1. All of these examples have used the verb “to be” to express the condition, but all verbs have subjunctive moods, which are formed the same ways—by going back a tense and using the plural, or by using “would,” “could,” or “should.”
If I write well, I will succeed as a lawyer.
(simple condition, present indicative)
If I wrote well, I would be on the Supreme Court.
(contrary-to-fact condition, present subjunctive)
If I wrote well, it was an accident.
(simple condition, past indicative)
If I had written well, we would have won the motion.
(contrary-to-fact condition, past subjunctive)
2. A contrary-to-fact condition expressed by a wish also uses the subjunctive mood:
I wish I wrote well.
I wish he had been there.
Similarly, a simple, noncommittal condition expressed by a hope uses the indicative:
I hope I write well.
I hope he was there.
(And now you know the difference between wishin’ and hopin’.)
3. Since a contrary-to-fact condition is expressed by the subjunctive mood, the subjunctive mood necessarily means that the condition is not true. Accordingly, using the subjunctive is one way to say something is not true.
Even if Plaintiff had filed a timely claim, he still would not be able to prove damages.
You do not need to put “which he has not” in the middle of that sentence. Indeed, to do so is redundant, since using the subjunctive already told the reader that the plaintiff had not filed a timely claim.