Four Usage Fights
1. Should I use a serial comma?
Some say we should omit the last comma in a series because it takes up space.
For lawyers, however, ambiguity is much scarier than an extra comma.
Every authority that matters in the legal world favors the serial comma: Strunk
and White, Wilson Follett, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Bryan Garner’s
Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, just to name a few. The few authorities that
disagree are all journalism guides.
Still not convinced? All nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices use the serial comma.
Here are three examples:
They have no access to newspapers, magazines, or personal photographs.1
The thrust of this evidence was that, based on factual reports, professional
observations, and tests, Clark was psychotic at the time in question, with a
condition that fell within the category of schizophrenia.2
The Court’s tripartite structure is something not addressed by the state trial
court, the state appellate court, counsel on either side in those proceedings,
or the briefs the parties filed with us.3
2. Can I start a sentence with however?
Starting sentences with
however is grammatically correct. Many good writers
avoid doing so, however, because however is heavier than but. When these writers
do use however, they move it into the middle of the sentence to emphasize
Smith, however, was unable to compensate Jones.
Smith was unable, however, to compensate Jones.
In the recent Solomon Amendment case, Chief Justice John Roberts uses however
six times mid-sentence. At the beginning of his sentences, he prefers
In its reply brief, the Government claims that this question is not before the
Court because it was neither included in the questions presented nor raised by
FAIR. […] But our review may, in our discretion, encompass questions “fairly
included” within the question presented, […] and there can be little doubt that
granting certiorari to determine whether a statute is constitutional fairly
includes the question of what that statute says.4
3. Can I start a sentence with and, but, or
Yes, yes, and yes. Note the following sentences from Hamdan v. Rumsfeld:
And that authority, if it exists, can derive only from the powers granted
jointly to the President and Congress in time of war.
But they surely gave Congress ample reason to doubt that their application in
pending cases would unfold as naturally as the Court glibly assumes.
Yet the mere statement that a military court is a regularly constituted tribunal
is of no help in addressing petitioner’s claim that his commission is not such a
One small point: When you start a sentence with and, but, or yet,
don’t use a comma. The purpose of these punchy conjunctions is to force the
reader into the rest of the sentence. A comma does nothing but stop the flow.
4. Can I start a sentence with because?
“You shouldn’t start sentences with because.” Really? It’s true that kids are
inclined to say, “I want to stay inside. Because it’s raining.” But great adult
writers can-and should-start sentences with because to emphasize cause and
Because each posting of a work is technically a “copy,” each posting is within
the reach of the Copyright Act.5
Because all the undervotes that will be manually counted will be counted under
this same standard, there is nothing to [Bush’s] equal protection claim.6
Because the team was not afforded funding, equipment, and facilities equivalent
to those offered to boys’ teams, petitioner was denied an equal playing field
from which to coach.7
Because the deadly weapon Recuenco held was in fact a handgun, the prosecutor
might have charged, as an alternative to the deadly weapon enhancement, that at
the time of the assault, Recuenco was “armed with a firearm.”8
Because the criminal justice system does not operate perfectly, abolition of the
death penalty is the only answer to the moral dilemma the dissent poses.9
- Beard v. Banks (2006).
Clark v. Arizona (2006).
Rumsfeld v. FAIR (2006).
- Petitioners’ brief in Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003).
- Respondents’ brief in Bush v. Gore (2000).
- Petitioner’s brief in Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ. (2006).
Washington v. Recuenco (2006).
Kansas v. Marsh (2006).
Order Point Made
Order Point Taken
Order Deal Struck