Lawyers, don’t wear belts and suspenders

Fortunately, most lawyers do not commit this fashion mistake—at least not in the way we dress. Many lawyers make this mistake, however, when it comes to writing.

How many times have you seen something like this:

Enclosed please find one (1) original and three (3) copies of the…

Too often, I’ll bet. Almost every lawyer does it, even though it is entirely unnecessary and, well, Bozo-the-Clown-silly. This belt-and-suspenders approach may have arisen when much of the population could not read but could recognize numbers. Well-respected legal writing expert Bryan Garner suspects that this practice grew out of a fear of typographical errors. Today, lawyers do this all the time for one simple yet groundless reason: it’s always done this way.

No matter what its origins, we ought to stamp this practice out for good. Today, there’s no reason to write out a number followed by the corresponding numerals in parenthesis. It is highly unlikely that someone will mistake your “ten” for a “one.” Even the most clumsy typist is not likely to type “two” instead of “ten.” If dropping this repetitive motif will cause you to lose sleep, break out in hives, and perhaps wet the bed, then for Pete’s sake please limit the practice to formal legal documents such as deeds or contracts. As Garner points out in his Dictionary of Legal Usage, no one wants to receive a letter that says, “Please give my regards to your two (2) children.” If you do this sort of thing in your cover letters or even informal, personal correspondence, people are liable to think you are a prat.

Here are my rules when it comes to numbers in a document:

  • Never start a sentence with a numeral. Spell out the number instead: “Four score and seven years ago…” rather than “4 score and 7 years ago…”
  • Smaller numbers can be written out if they appear anywhere but at the start of a sentence: two, ten, sixteen, etc.
  • Any number greater than twenty should probably appear in numerals: “22” rather than “twenty-two.” It has to do with ease of reading, and the line drawn at twenty is admittedly arbitrary.
  • Unless you’re writing out a check, there’s no need to write “One Thousand, Seven Hundred and 52/100 Dollars” in a document. Just write “$1,700.52.” It’s easier to type and easier to read.

There are probably more rules I could suggest, but following these and getting rid of those ridiculous redundancies like “ten (10)” will go a long way to making your writing more readable. Your readers will appreciate it.

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