09 July 2008

The Impossibility of Perfect Grammar

A waggish legal writing professor has identified ten editing and fact checking errors in the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Heller decision, which expanded the scope of the Second Amendment. Drafting errors were apportioned equally between the majority opinion and the dissent. The author of the post doesn't make the claim, but Heller is notable only for the attention it expectedly received, which, if anything suggests that greater care was given to its editing than a typical opinion, not less care. A sharp editor could find similar mistakes in most long U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the most erudite governmental body with any power in the United States. The Justices engage in legal writing for a living. They are all experienced lawyers and jurists. Their clerks are the smartest recent law school graduates in the nation and have proven themselves as excellent clerks in prior assignments.

No appellate court in the country produces fewer written opinions per justice per year than the U.S. Supreme Court. A typical U.S. Supreme Court Justice writes fewer than nine majority opinions and a smaller number of dissenting opinions each year. Yes, there are other duties associated with the position, most notably hearing oral arguments, evaluating certiorari petitions with the help of memorandums prepared by law clerks, and numerous additional duties of the Chief Justice in his capacity as Chief of the entire Judiciary. But the bottom line is the the U.S. Supreme Court has immense resources to devote to legal drafting compared to any other government institution and specializes in doing so.

If U.S. Supreme Court opinions are sprinkled with subtle grammatical errors, one can't expect anyone else to be better. Good grammar is necessary as a matter of professionalism. Perfect grammar is unreasonable for anyone to expect in extended written work.

Incidentally, newcomers may be unfamiliar with my editing policy at this blog. I have limited time to devote to writing it, I have no copy editor, I have fat fingers when it comes to typing, and a fairly small percentage of the posts receive significant repeat readership. As a result, while I sometimes will make one or two proof reading runs after an initial post to try to root out typos, spelling errors and grammatical missteps, my posts contain these kinds of errors in droves.

I reserve the privilege of editing past posts for form without notice, and sometimes do so if a post receives significant readership, although I usually do note in a post if changes in substance that are made well after the original post, unless the error is a simple factual correction. Also whether a factual correction or update is made in the body of the original post, in a comment to it, or in a new post (which may or may not be linked to the original post), is largely a matter of whimsy on my part.

No comments: