One tip to improve your legal writing

One simple fix even most good writers can make

What’s one thing many good writers can improve upon?

Here’s one simple fix that even most good writers can make: pay attention to where you are placing the word “only” in sentences.

Most people are not deliberate about where they put the word “only.” And even good writers are not much better. I often read otherwise well-written briefs from excellent scribes where “only” is out of place.

The issue, I think, stems from the fact that people’s intuition is to put “only” on the opposite side of a verb from where the meaning would be clearest.

For example, most people would tend to write “I only dropped the ball” (you didn’t pick it up and carry it first?) when what they mean is “I dropped only the ball” (and not anything else).

The problem with that placement is that it is at least ambiguous, and perhaps conveys something you didn’t intend. Small shifts in where the word “only” appears in a sentence can change that sentence’s meaning. Consider the following sentences:

  1. Only the ball hit Matt in the face.
  2. The ball only hit Matt in the face.
  3. The ball hit only Matt in the face.
  4. The ball hit Matt only in the face.
  5. The ball hit Matt in the face only.

The meaning of each of these sentences is slightly different. For some, the meaning is clear (but perhaps not what the author intended), and for others, the sentence is susceptible to more than one meaning.

If you’ve never thought about this problem before, go back and read a longer brief you wrote. I’ll bet you there’s at least one “only” that would be better off somewhere else.

Where should you put the word “only” in a sentence?

90% of the time, the solution is to place the “only” as close as possible to what it modifies. “Only the ball hit Matt in the face” unambiguously says “The ball and nothing else hit Matt in the face,” which, if it is what you intended, will work fine. 

Occasionally, the very fact that folks are sloppy about “only” leaves a particular phrasing ambiguous, even if you’ve probably got it right. “The ball only hit Matt in the face” is a good example. This phrase most clearly means “The ball hit Matt in the face and did not do anything to Matt’s face other than hit it.” But, precisely because people tend to be a bit sloppy with “only,” most people will first read this either as “The ball hit Matt in the face and did not hit anybody else” or “The ball hit Matt in the face and nowhere else on his body,” depending on whether the speaker emphasizes the word “Matt” or “face.” Both because people’s intuition tends to be off and because you can’t hear spoken emphasis in writing, it is probably best to find an alternative wording even if you really did mean what you said.

Does where you put “only” in a sentence even matter?

Is this all nitpicking? After all, language isn’t really prescriptive. If people share a common intuition on a grammar rule, there’s a sense in which they are inherently correct. There’s not much value in continuing to complain about people using “literally” when they mean “figuratively,” for example, because at this point, everybody knows what they intended to communicate.

If you put “only” away from what it modifies in a sentence, most people will still get what you are saying. But you still shouldn’t do it in legal writing, and here’s why: any ambiguity in meaning, even one that the reader can quickly clear up, adds to the mental load the reader experiences in deciphering your work. If you want a court to focus on the difficult question of law your brief poses, don’t make their brain work at all to decipher your sentences. Figuring out the law is hard enough without having to figure out what you’re saying. Sticking the “only” in the correct spot is one way to make your reader’s job (very slightly) easier.

Here’s one other thing that would help every great writer.

Maybe you already place “only” in your sentence only where it belongs. But here’s one last thing that makes every single writer better. Have someone else edit you. No writer is so good a second set of eyes wouldn’t help. If you are working on a tough brief and could use peer review, contact Kastorf Law here. The firm regularly drafts briefs on critical legal issues, and can also help you refine and improve something you’ve already written.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email