One of the most common mistakes I see in good legal writing is the use of non-parallel form—lists that contain a jumble of items that don’t match grammatically. The rule is simple: items in a list need to matchy-match grammatically.
Here’s a non-parallel list that caught my eye when I was readingThe New York Times’coverage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ongoing efforts to blame his former staff for the fiasco known as Bridgegate:

184875799_aad93b1dbb_mBut the report . . . doubles down on a strategy of portraying Ms. Kelly as duplicitous, weeping frequently and dependent on men for approval
and stability.

Caught that? The three descriptors are duplicitous, weeping, and dependent. That’s adjective, verb, adjective. Weeping just doesn’t fit. (I admit, this is hardly the ickiest part of this sentence.) Weepy or even prone to weeping would do the trick in terms of creating parallel form.

And here’s a messy list from the side of a frozen yogurt truck I just saw in Manhattan:

Yogo’s benefits include a mish-mash of just about every grammatical form: nouns, verbs, gerunds. The fix is easy: each of the benefits should start with a verb like Boosts, as in:

-Contains live and active probiotic cultures
-Enhances one’s nutritional status You get the idea.In legal writing, the parallel form issue comes up in the numbered and bulleted lists we constantly use, especially overviews of elements or factors. So instead of:

In the Fourth Circuit, courts deciding whether to grant preliminary injunctions consider the following criteria: (1) the moving party’s likelihood of success on the merits, (2) the moving party will be irreparably injured if the preliminary relief is not granted, (3) a balance of hardships favoring the plaintiff and (4) the public interest would be advanced by the injunction.

Write this:

In the Fourth Circuit, courts deciding whether to grant preliminary injunctions consider the following criteria: (1) the moving party’s likelihood of success on the merits, (2) irreparable injury to the moving party if the preliminary relief is not granted, (3) a balance of hardships favoring the moving party, and (4) advancement of the public interest.

The revision is grammatically correct, which is reason enough to make the changes, but it also makes the information just a bit easier to take in.

So when you’re editing, double check that all of your lists are in parallel form. It’s an easy rule to follow, and it helps send the message to your reader that these items are peas in a pod—they actually serve the same function in your sentence.

If you’re old enough to remember Sesame Street, think of parallel form as the Cookie Monster rule—ask yourself, “Which of these things is not like the others?”


Duck photo via Flickr user Pfly.


Who Gives a *%$& About the Serial Comma?

Who Gives a *%$& About the Serial Comma?October 23, 2014 Uncategorized

In keeping with what I teach my clients, I’ll start with the punchline: Yes, you can and should use the serial comma. But you should also be prepared for your colleagues to insist on deleting it. For every lawyer who enthusiastically agrees with my recommendation, I’ve spoken to another who just as passionately disagrees (without […]

Read the full article →

Don’t be a blockhead about your block quotations.

Don’t be a blockhead about your block quotations.March 3, 2014 Style and usage

I don’t know about you, but when I come across a block quotation — in a memo, a brief, or in passing on the street — my eyelids get heavy and my head droops. Wake me up when it’s over. Most readers have the same reaction. So what’s a legal writer to do? You can […]

Read the full article →

Beware the double tentative!

Beware the double tentative!January 31, 2014 Grammar

You’re probably well aware of the double negative, but I’m guessing you haven’t heard of the double tentative. (That’s an educated guess, given that it’s a term of my own invention.) The double tentative, as I’m defining it, is the use of two words or phrases that add lawyerly layers of uncertainty to an otherwise clear […]

Read the full article →

Talking Turkey: Mind Your Metaphors

Talking Turkey: Mind Your MetaphorsDecember 4, 2013 Metaphors

Here’s a thought: While those of us in the U.S. are preparing for the turkey-fest that’s Thanksgiving, this Thursday is just another weekday in the rest of the world. And, to use a cliché that’s probably understood worldwide, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cultural references Americans take for […]

Read the full article →

Who dat?

Who dat?November 1, 2013 Style and usage

I’ll cut to the chase: in my view, writers should use who rather than that to modify humans. So write this: the lawyer who is handling the case. Not this: the lawyer that is handling the case. Full disclosure: it is technically permissible to use that to modify people. No less an authority than Bryan […]

Read the full article →

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?September 13, 2013 Punctuation

The basic rule is straightforward: you need a hyphen to join two (or more) modifiers if the words taken together modify a noun that follows. Got that? A couple examples: A one-page letter A well-established rule The hyphen essentially tells the reader that one modifies page, and well modifies established. But don’t hyphenate when the noun comes before the modifier: The letter is one page. […]

Read the full article →

Who or whom? Hmmm…

Who or whom? Hmmm...July 16, 2013 Grammar

Deciding between who and whom gets tricky in complex sentences. I realized just how tricky when two of the snazziest writers I know—my brother and a friend who wrote for Businessweek for many years—emailed me to ask whether the following sentences require who or whom: Suffolk County detectives looking for whoever killed four prostitutes are […]

Read the full article →

Beyond the Smiley Face: Use the Colon to Assert Confidence

Beyond the Smiley Face: Use the Colon to Assert ConfidenceMay 29, 2013 Punctuation

Apart from its key role in the smiley face, the colon is a tragically underused punctuation mark. Lots of professional writers use colons only when they must—to introduce a list or a long quotation. But the colon is a great tool for showing strength and confidence in a low-key way. The colon’s function is to […]

Read the full article →

Know any NY area law students?

Dianne Rosky presenting at PALS May 14, 2013 News

Later this month, I’ll be presenting my core legal writing workshop, Essential of Effective Legal Writing for one of my favorite organizations, PALS (Practicing Attorneys for Law Students). The program is scheduled for May 21 at 6:30 pm; Sullivan & Cromwell is hosting. This year marks the 10th year we’ve offered this program – a […]

Read the full article →