- Double negatives
- Extra syllables: upon, relevancy
- First or firstly; more important or more importantly
- Letter openers and closers
- Name-calling words: specious, spurious, disingenuous
I Can’t Deny Not Forgetting What I Never Knew
The injunction against double negatives is well known. The reason for it is stylistic, not grammatical. A reader must work harder to follow a double negative. Indeed, it’s a little hard to follow any negative.
A reader’s brain wants to register actions: I can dance. A negative (I can’t dance) forces the reader to register the action and then cancel it out, a two step process. (I can’t dance the two-step.) A double negative (I can’t not dance) cancels out the canceling out, a three step process. Of course, all these steps proceed at the speed of thought, which varies with the thinker but is generally pretty fast. Nevertheless, a three-step process takes longer than a two-step, which, while fairly simple, takes longer than a straight declaration of an action.
Writers and speakers frequently use a double negative colloquially for emphasis—that is, to say that something is doubly negative:
He ain’t no Clarence Darrow.
I don’t know nothing.
This use of the double negative is ungrammatical and is the form that our elementary school teachers taught us to avoid. These sentences actually say the opposite of what the speaker means, since the negatives cancel each other out. Only our understanding of idiom enables us to catch the real meaning.
Other languages allow using a double negative to express a negative. Yo no se nada translates word-for-word to “I don’t know nothing,” but it is Spanish for “I know nothing.” Thus, the famous double negative spoken by the bandit in Treasure of Sierra Madre—“I don’t need no stinkin’ badges”—was simply a literal translation from Spanish.
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The most acceptable use of a double negative in English is when the writer intends that the negatives cancel each other out:
Defendants are not unsympathetic to plaintiff’s injuries.
This construction is more cumbersome than “Defendants are sympathetic . . . ,” but the steps the reader’s brain goes through are fairly simple, and the meaning is a little different. Some writers overdo this construction, which is called a “litote.”. It works as a rhetorical device, providing an unusual twist on the normal structure of the sentence; so keep it unusual.
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Of course, language is not like math; a double negative does not necessarily equal a positive. For example, just as “not bad” means something different from “good,” “I can’t not dance” means something different from “I can dance.” Thus, eliminating double negatives requires more than just getting rid of both of them. Figure out what you are trying to say and say it—I must dance, I can’t sit still, I can’t resist dancing—to make the reader’s job easier.
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Bear in mind that a negative does not always have a negative word (such as “not” or “never”), prefix (such as “un-”), or suffix (such as “-less”) to identify it. Many other words carry a negative meaning: verbs such as fail, deny, and avoid, as well as nouns such as absence, and modifiers such as empty. Be careful when using such a word along with a true negative. “Plaintiff denies that he was not there,” for example, reads like a double negative, as does “Plaintiff denies that he was absent.” These sentences require the reader’s brain to take extra steps. “Plaintiff claims he was there” requires no extra steps.
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Another construction that can trip up the reader is the “positive negative,” which requires the reader to cancel something out and then add to it:
Plaintiff failed to conduct any discovery, including propounding interrogatories and showing up for depositions.
The reader’s brain takes the action “conduct discovery” and cancels it out with the negative, “failed.” Then, when there’s nothing left, the writer starts to provide details of nothing. It would be better to keep it all negative:
The plaintiff has failed to conduct any discovery. He has not propounded interrogatories or shown up for depositions.
And, following the general rule that it is better to avoid negating an action, you could make the nouns negative instead of the verbs:
The plaintiff has failed to conduct any discovery. He has propounded no interrogatories and attended no depositions.
Sometimes, however, making the noun negative creates a “positive negative.” For example, changing “never done anything” to “always done nothing” forces the reader to stop and think.
Like many other stylistic rules, the injunction against double negatives can be violated to the writer’s advantage—that is, to obscure the point you are making when you want to keep it obscured. And country-western songwriters frequently make good use of the double, triple, and even quadruple negative.
Believe it or not, clear writing uses the shortest words available. A couple of words commonly used around here could easily be one syllable shorter, which would make your writing crisper.
1. Relevancy is a word, but so is relevance.
2. Upon and on mean the same thing. On is shorter. Sometimes, but very rarely, idiom demands that you use one or the other, as with the verb “put”:
I felt put upon by the plaintiff’s request. (The request made things difficult for me.)
I felt put on by the plaintiff’s request. (The request was a joke.)
Otherwise, use “on.”
When should you say firstly, secondly, thirdly, and so on, instead of first, second, third?
Since these words mean the same thing, neither set is wrong. But the words that are a syllable shorter than their counterparts are preferable. The only time you should use “firstly, secondly . . . “ is when you want to add
an extra syllable or you need words that rhyme. And why would you want to do that? As a general rule, stick with “first, second, third . . . “ instead of the more pretentious form of these adverbs.
Both Fowler and Strunk and White address this question, but they seem to be discussing—and rejecting—the antiquated rule, which paradoxically required, “First, . . . ; secondly, . . . ; thirdly, . . .” All contemporary authorities agree that you should be consistent with whichever form you use: Either add the -ly suffix to every number or don’t add it to any. Most prefer that you don’t use it.
Some related points:
1. Use “first, second, third” to enumerate points when each will be followed by a full sentence. When all the points are in the same sentence, numbers usually will work fine:
To qualify for the exemption, an applicant must (1) be over 65, (2) live with a relative, and (3) know the words to “Eleanor Rigby.”
Plaintiff does not qualify for the exemption. First, she is only 16 years old. Second, she lives alone. Finally, she has testified that she believes Eleanor Rigby was a meter maid.
Note the use of “finally” to let the reader know you have reached the last item in the series.
2. When using cardinal numbers, use numerals (1,2,3); don’t write out “One, two, three.” When using ordinal numbers (the other kind), do write them out; don’t use “1st, 2nd, 3rd.”
3. “First of all” is usually redundant. If something is first, it’s first. “First and foremost” is not redundant. It tells the reader this first item in the list is the most important. The question is whether you want to tell the reader
that. “First and foremost” announces that the rest of the list will be less important, and you never want to tell your readers they are going to read something that doesn’t matter.
4. You may, however, want to tell the readers at the end of a list that what they are about to read is more important than what they have already read. That’s okay—you can’t discourage them from reading something they’ve read already, and you may encourage them to read what comes next. How you do that, however, is the subject of some controversy. Most authorities complain that “More importantly” (or “most importantly”) is the wrong way to do it.
The trial court found that plaintiff improperly refused to respond to discovery. More [important or importantly?], the court blamed plaintiff’s attorney and ordered him to pay sanctions personally.
Grammatically, the adverb “importantly” would modify the verb “blamed,” in which case the sentence would mean the court blamed the plaintiff’s attorney in an important way—and in a way that was more important than the way it ruled plaintiff abused discovery.
“More important” is a better contraction for “What is more important,” which is what the writer meant: that sanctioning the lawyer was more important than finding improper conduct.
This reasoned analysis applies with equal force to situations where it doesn’t seem as reasonable. For example, when you start a sentence with “significantly,” or “interestingly,” you are not saying that what follows was done in a significant or interesting way; you are saying it is significant or interesting that it was done.
Significantly, the trial court discussed the merits of plaintiff’s arguments before rejecting them as untimely.
“Significantly “ here is short for “What is significant,” just as “More important[ly]” is really short for “What is more important.” You don’t mean the court discussed the merits in a significant way. But it would sound weird to say, “Significant, the trial court never even discussed the merits of plaintiff’s arguments.”
How do we get out of this? We write all the words instead of writing elliptically.
What is significant, the trial court discussed and rejected the merits of plaintiff’s arguments . . .
The court’s discussion of the merits of plaintiff’s arguments is significant.
The other way out of this is to side with those authorities, such as Theodore Bernstein in “The Careful Writer,” who say “more importantly” and “significantly” have become acceptable contractions of “what is more important” and “what is significant.” English usage, in the end, is a lot like law: You can usually find some authority to support whatever position you want to take.
There are standard ways to begin and end business letters. They begin with a salutation (“Dear Ms. Prudence:”), which may be preceded by a reference line (Re: Becker vs. Lendl, Our file No. 11111.2222.3).
They end with a complimentary close, which may range from the deferential (“Respectfully yours,”) to the informal (“With best wishes,”). Formal letters such as those to other counsel should close with “Very truly yours,” while general business correspondence may use “Sincerely,” which is less formal.
The words that go between these standardized beginnings and ends, however, should not be standardized. Try to keep your letters from looking like form letters (even if they are).
Openers. Like the introduction to any other document, the opening of a letter should catch the reader’s attention and draw him or her into the subject matter. Exactly how to do this will depend on the circumstances, but there are some fairly common examples of how not to start a letter, many of which are undesirable precisely because they are so common:
“Enclosed are . . . “ (which is clearly preferable to “Enclosed please find . . .”)
A cover letter or transmittal letter should begin with these words—the letter is primarily a formality to tell the recipient that you are enclosing some documents. Unfortunately, some people have concluded that any letter with enclosures should begin “Enclosed are . . . “ But if the main purpose of a letter is to remind a client of an important deadline, and you are incidentally sending along something for the client to read, don’t begin with the incidental matter by saying “Enclosed are.” These words are a signal that this is just a transmittal letter, so the client may go straight to the enclosure and never get to the more important information.
Throat Clearing Devices “I am writing to . . . “; “This letter will confirm . . . “; “This is just a reminder . . .”; “I wanted to let you know . . . .”
As the shoemaker says, Just Do It! The reader knows you are writing; you don’t need to say so. Nor do you need to announce that you are about to say something or that the letter is about to say something. While you don’t have to leap right into your main point, you should not clear your throat to get the reader’s attention. Other, more active introductions will work better: “I have reviewed the file in this case,” for example, or, “Thank you for your letter.”
“Pursuant to our conversation earlier today . . .”
Besides overuse, there are three things wrong with this opener. “Pursuant to” is overly formal; don’t use it. This opening also suffers from using a noun where a verb would have made the sentence more active: “As we discussed today . . . “ (Actions engage readers, which is what the beginning of a document is supposed to do.) Finally, note that “earlier” is unnecessary, since it is very unlikely you are writing about a conversation that has not yet taken place.
Closers. The last words before “Very truly yours,” also tend to be the same old conventions. We have standardized them and use them whether or not they are appropriate. Some examples:
“Thank you for your kind courtesy and cooperation.”
There probably was a time when someone used these words and meant them, but overuse has robbed them of meaning. When someone ends a letter to me like this, I don’t believe it any more than I believe the writer is “very truly” mine. If the person you are writing really has been helpful and courteous, it is appropriate to express your appreciation, and that is even a good way to end a letter. But try to sound more sincere than this old standard—perhaps by referring to a specific kindness for which you are grateful. (A related closer is “Thank you in advance for you assistance.” This is not only trite, it’s presumptuous.)
“Please do not hesistate to call me if you have any questions.”
Why would I hesitate to call? Why would you expect me to? Drop the first five words of this sentence to say what you mean.
“I look forward to [or anticipate] your immediate reply.”
The most effective ending to a letter is something that asks the reader to do something. Relying on this old standard, however, is not likely to spur anyone into action. The reason is that these words have been so overused that they have come to mean “Okay, the letter’s over,” when you really want to say, “It’s your move, so move it.” The word “please” is quite appropriate, but follow it with specific action you want the reader to take. And use a verb to convey action: “Please get back to me by Tuesday, October 8.” If you want to sound more menacing, include a threat: “If I have not heard from you by Tuesday, October 8, I will proceed with our motion to compel.”
Ending with a call to action works even with a very short transmittal letter: “Enclosed are the papers you wanted. Please look them over, and call me if you have any questions.”
Understanding the subtle differences between words that mean almost the same thing is part of what makes a good writer. Take, for example, the words you use to characterize your adversary’s argument as worthless. Three of the most common barbs hurled by lawyers at other lawyers are specious, spurious, and disingenous. Unfortunately, writers who should know better use these words interchangeably. But they do not all mean the same thing.
Specious is the most misused, probably because it sounds so evil—sort of a cross between “feces” and “ridiculous.” So if you want to say, “Plaintiff’s argument is a ridiculous crock of feces,” specious looks like a good choice of words. Unfortunately, this is specious, because specious puts little blame on your adversary.
When you say something is specious, you mean, “It looks good (or true), but it really isn’t.” A shiny, red apple that tastes sour is specious, though the word is rarely used this way anymore. If an argument appears solid at first blush but falls apart on closer analysis, it is a specious argument. Similarly, if a rule makes sense until you consider the consequences of applying it in other contexts, the wisdom of the rule is specious.
The dictionary says specious means “deceptively attractive” or “having a false look of truth.” Saying an argument is specious imputes no evil intent to the argument’s author. It may suggest negligence or that the author should have been more thorough, but it does not say the author is a liar.
spurious, however, does carry just such an evil connotation. Although one definition, “superficially accurate, but really not,” sounds a lot like the definition of specious, check out these other meanings: “not genuine, counterfeit, not from the claimed or proper source.” In other words, a spurious argument is specious, but it is also more. It is one the author knows is not true. The author is a liar.
Back in old England, spurious often referred to false claims of noble birth, and so ended up with a meaning close to “bastard.” You don’t have to tell your adversary that, but you can take satisfaction in knowing you’ve been really insulting. Unlike specious, spurious refers only to claims or arguments, not to things like apples.
The “false claim” definition of spurious makes it especially appropriate for an adversary’s claim that a case holds something that you want to argue the case does not hold.
disingenous, like specious and spurious, refers to something that is not what it appears to be. disingenous is more specific, for it means “giving a false appearance of candor.” It does not mean simply “dishonest.” There is the extra element of hypocrisy. A disingenous person isn’t just lying; he or she is pretending to be sincere while lying. (Note that the person, not just the statement or argument, may be disingenous.) Someone who adamantly denies the truth is being disingenous. And chances are so is someone who says, “I just don’t remember.”
If your adversary is making an argument that ignores some fact or rule of law, call it specious. If you believe your adversary knows the argument ignores some fact or rule of law, call it spurious. If you believe your adversary knows the argument ignores some fact or rule of law but is making some extra effort to attest to its validity, call it disingenous. If you want to stir up some trouble, call it a lie. And if you want the judge to wonder aloud what ever happened to civility among the bar, call your adversary a liar.
The injunction against
1. “For the reason that” means the same thing as “because.” Don’t use four words when one will do.
2. A debate rages among the picky over “The reason is because . . . ,” which most say should be replaced with “The reason is that . . . .”
(a) The reason I am late is because the tunnel was closed.
(b) The reason I am late is that the tunnel was closed.
Some say sentence (a) is redundant, since, as I just said, “because” means “for the reason that.” Thus, sentence (a) says, “The reason I am late is for the reason that the tunnel was closed.” How many reasons do you need?
Another justification for rejecting sentence (a) in favor of sentence (b) is that the sentence structure requires a noun or adjective after “is,” while “because”is an adverbial conjunction that introduces adverbial clauses. This is a specious justification, however, since everyone agrees that “because” can introduce noun clauses:
(c) If Plaintiff cannot understand the request, it is because he has not read it.
If “because” is replaced by “that” the meaning is changed—cause and effect is eliminated. However, if “it” is replaced by “the reason” and then “because” is replaced by “that,” the meaning is not changed:
If Plaintiff cannot understand the request, the reason is that he has not read it.
Thus, (a) and (b) are grammatically correct, but they could be improved by eliminating the cumbersome noun clause:
I am late because the tunnel was closed.
Sentence (c) cannot be fixed in a similar way. “If Plaintiff cannot understand the request, he has not read it,” once again drops the cause and effect. Note, however, that you can imply the cause and effect by using “must”:
If Plaintiff cannot understand the request, he must not have read it.
3. While brevity is a rhetorical asset, many writers want to use “the reason” as a rhetorical device to emphasize that what follows is an explanation of what might otherwise be mysterious or misunderstood:
The reason Plaintiff is pursuing this motion is that [or because] he is afraid to have the court reach the substance of his claims.
This sentence is more dramatic and persuasive than the same thought just using “because” as an adverbial conjunction: “Plaintiff is pursuing this motion because he is afraid to have the court reach the substance of his claims.” But other constructions maintain the drama while avoiding the cumbersome noun clause. Two independent clauses joined by a colon will do the trick:
The reason Plaintiff is pursuing this motion is clear: He is afraid to have the court reach the substance of his claims.
So will a rhetorical question, followed by an answer, which can be a full sentence or a not-quite-grammatical sentence fragment:
Why is Plaintiff pursuing this motion? He is afraid to have the court reach the substance of his claims.
Why is Plaintiff pursuing this motion? Because he is afraid to have the court reach the substance of his claims.
Why is Plaintiff pursuing this motion? To keep the court from reaching the substance of his claims.
4. “Reason why” is the subject its own debate. If it is not truly redundant, it is at least wordy. For example, these three sentences all mean the same thing:
Plaintiffs have a right to ask the reason why Defendant failed to show up for her deposition.
Plaintiffs have a right to ask why Defendant failed to show up for her deposition.
Plaintiffs have a right to ask the reason Defendant failed to show up for her deposition.
Whether to leave “the reason” or instead to leave “why” is up to you.
The so-called redundancy in “reason why” may, however, help understanding when using the plural “reasons”:
Defendant has provided countless reasons why she cannot respond to these interrogatories.
Without “why,” the sentence is hard to read. Without “reasons,” it is impossible.
“Red flag” words signal that something may be wrong with the way you are writing. For example, “of” often indicates that you have used a noun when you should have used a verb. (You should use verbs because readers most easily grasp action).
The court makes the determination of good faith.
I am in need of assistance.
The “of” is a red flag indicating that maybe you should change a noun into a verb for more forceful writing:
The court determines good faith.
I need help.
“Of” might also be a signal that you have used a prepositional phrase to express a possessive where a simple apostrophe would have done:
The statements of the expert were convoluted.
The expert’s statements were convoluted.
A couple other words or phrases that signal you to think about the way you are writing are “clearly,” and “as you know.”
Clearly. If something is clear, you don’t need to say it is. If it is not clear, saying it is won’t make it so. Make your arguments clear with logic, not with pronouncements. The same applies to such words as “obviously,” “undeniably,” and “indisputably.”
Note the important difference between “indisputably” and “undisputed.” The former, which means something cannot be disputed, invites someone to come along and contradict your statement; the latter lets the reader know the other side isn’t denying what you are saying.
As you know. Most often found in letters, this phrase is either unnecessary or incomplete. You don’t need to tell someone they know something, so why are you using this phrase? I can think of two reasons. First, you may need to say something that is important to the logic of the point you are making:
As you know, Mr. Jones was unable to attend his scheduled deposition on June 12. We will need to extend the discovery cut-off and reschedule his deposition.
You need to mention the missed deposition to explain your request, but you don’t want to sound like you’re telling the reader something new when it is something he or she already knows. So just say it as if the reader already knows (which, of course, he or she does):
Because Mr. Jones was unable to attend his scheduled deposition on June 12, we will need to extend…
The second reason people say “as you know” is to let an audience other than the addressee know that the addressee already knew. For example, whenever you write to opposing counsel about a discovery dispute, you should assume your letter will someday be an exhibit that the court will read. You will want the court to know that opposing counsel already knew something and wasn’t being told about it for the first time in the letter.
As you know, I will be in trial in Katmandu for the next six weeks and will be unable to attend Mr. Jones’s deposition.
But that provides the court with incomplete information. Tell the court how opposing counsel knows:
As I told you when we met on Tuesday, I will be in trial…
As I mentioned in my letter of May 5, I will be in trial…
“As you may already know” is a different matter. Here, you are being polite, acknowledging that the reader may already know something, but not assuming it. Again, if you can be specific about how the reader might have found out, you should be:
As you may have read in yesterday’s “New York Times,” I will be vacationing in Pago Pago next week and will not be able to attend the deposition.
Pete probably has already told you about my upcoming vacation, which will keep me from attending next week’s deposition.
Some words that seem to help the reader may not succeed; indeed, they may make the reader’s job harder. For example, the word “respectively” means “each in the order named” and theoretically helps the reader put the pieces of the sentence together:
Mr. Jones and his daughter were sitting in the front and back seat, respectively.
Some might say the reader is now able to sort out where each of the Joneses was sitting. But I’d put it a little differently: The reader has to sort out where each of the Joneses was sitting. Our job as writers is to make the reader work as little as possible to get the meaning of the sentence. Matching column A with column B, as the reader must do when “respectively” is used, is more work than reading a sentence in which the parts that go together are kept together:
Mr. Jones was sitting in the front seat, and his daughter was sitting in the back.
The confusion generated by “respectively” is especially great when it is used to match subjects with verbs related to a single object, as opposed to matchings subjects with objects around a common verb:
Ms. Rogers and Ms. Astaire respectively drafted and revised the interrogatories.
Ms. Rogers and Ms. Astaire drafted and revised, respectively, the interrogatories.
These sentences are really a lot of work for the reader. And it is very easy to keep each subject with its verb, either with a parenthetical or with a pronoun for the second object:
Ms. Rogers drafted, and Ms. Astaire revised, the interrogatories.
Ms. Rogers drafted the interrogatories, and Ms. Astaire revised them.
Other words that sometimes make the reader work are “former” and “latter,” especially when one appears without the other. As with “respectively,” we imagine we are helping our reader when we identify things by the order in which we have mentioned them:
Neither Plaintiff’s counsel nor her secretary was able to find the document in time. The former had left town and the latter pled ignorance.
Wilson and Brown pulled no punches in the debate. The former even mentioned moonbeams and malathion, as if Brown were her brother’s keeper.
Once again, the reader of the first example must put the pieces of the puzzle together to determine that “The former” is “Plaintiff’s counsel.” At least that example has the advantage of symmetry, with the same number of items in column A (Plaintiff’s counsel, and her secretary) as column B (former, latter). The second example doesn’t even gain the rhythm that comes from such symmetry, but it makes the reader look back to the first sentence to understand the second. (Note also that you couldn’t refer to Brown as “the latter in the second sentence, since another pair (moonbeams and malathion) has intervened.)
Sometimes these words save space, but bear in mind that concise writing should focus not on the length of the document but on how long it takes to read. To the reader who must take time to go back over a preceding sentence, the document seems longer than it is.
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The adjective “respective” does not make the reader work, but it is often unnecessary. In Modern English Usage, Fowler says it is unnecessary nine times out of ten.
Defendants talked to their respective lawyers.
Plaintiff and Defendant each talked to his respective lawyer.
The lawyers went back to their respective offices.
In the first sentence, “respective” may be necessary to let us know that the defendants had separate lawyers. But “respective” is not necessary in the other two examples.
When using “respective,” try reading the sentence without it; if it still makes sense and is unambiguous, drop the superfluous word.
When is it appropriate to use a slash mark, as in “and/or”?
Offhand, I can’t think of any time when you should use a slash (/), except to indicate directories and subdirectories in computerese. In other settings, the slash means “One of these words fits here,” but leaves it to the reader, or to fate, to decide which one will fit. That is not clear writing.
“A and/or B” means “A and B, or A or B,” which can more easily be said, “A or B, or both.” However, almost every time you use the legalism “and/or”, you could instead say just “or.” No one will think you mean “A or B, but not both.” For example:
If the landlord and/or the tenants refuse entry, the city may not use the property for a polling place.
Changing “and/or” to “or” does not confuse the reader. Try it with any “and/or” you’ve seen used lately.
On that extremely rare occasion when you really need to make it clear that you mean “A or B, or both,” say exactly that instead of “A and/or B.” Similarly, if you really need to make it clear that you mean “A or B, but not both,” say that, or say “either A or B,” rather than just “A or B.”
“And/or” is at least scanable—that is, a reader can say out loud what he or she is reading and know what it means, albeit only through familiarity. “He/she” on the other hand is not scanable—it doesn’t sound right (at least not yet—it too may become so common that it is familiar, but let’s hope not). Use “he or she.” (Note that it would be difficult to say “and or or”—it would sound like stuttering.)
Of course, if there is a way to avoid the double-pronoun construction “he or she,” you should. You can change the nouns and pronouns to plural and use “they,” or you can use a gender-free term, such as “a worker” or “a victim.” But if you really need a singular personal pronoun but you don’t know the gender of the person, use “he or she.” “He” alone is sexist, as is “she,” and “he/she” uses the forbidden slash. (Then there’s “s/he,” which misuses the forbidden slash. It doesn’t mean “Either ‘s’ or ‘he’ fits here.” And just how would you read “s/he” out loud?)
Finally, because a slash means “One of these fits here,” don’t use it to form compound nouns, such as “plaintiff/appellant,” or “husband/father.” You don’t mean “plaintiff or appellant”; you mean “plaintiff and appellant.” To form a compound noun, use a hyphen: “plaintiff-appellant.”