Good Books

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

This is the best book on English usage that you can buy. Why? Because it will not just give you a rule, like “use farther to refer to actual distance and further for other contexts,” but will also tell you the history of that rule and whether it matches up with actual educated English usage. The only thing that some may dislike about MWDEU (as the mavens call it) is that it doesn’t normally tell you whether to follow the “rule” or not; instead, it gives you all the information that you need to make that decision for yourself. It is very well-researched and well-respected. Every professional writer of the English language—and that includes anyone who writes legal briefs—should have a copy in their office.

Typography For Lawyers

This book won’t tell you a thing about how to improve the content of your briefs, but will tell you pretty much everything that you need to know about how to make your briefs look good. It explains the principles of typography and good document design that have been established by the professionals who create printed materials for a living, and applies them to the needs of lawyers.


The Redbook

This is intended to be a desk reference for legal style, to be consulted when you are trying to decide whether you need a colon or semicolon in a particular spot, whether to single-space or double-space after a period, and whether you should use all-caps in a title. It is quite prescriptive, meaning that normally it just identifies the question and gives a rule to answer it. It doesn’t normally explain why you should follow the rule, or explain its history. Given its intended role, that is appropriate, but you should own more discursive references in addition to this one (like MWDEU). This is a great book to use as a quick reference, but is not very helpful to educate yourself comprehensively about proper style. It would be a good book to give to all the secretaries and paralegals in a firm, to greatly improve the quality and consistency of your briefs.

The Chicago Manual of Style

This book—known as CMOS to people in the writing trade—is a standard reference guide for writers in all fields. It gives authoritative rulings on matters ranging from punctuation to quotation styles. It is a very well-recognized authority. Because of its general scope, it contains many sections that will be useful to lawyers only when they are working on their novel over the weekend (Chapter Four, for example, is about copyrights and publishing permissions). Also, its advice about citations often will conflict with the Bluebook. This is a very good style manual to have on your shelf, but it should not be a lawyer’s only style resource.

 Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage

This is a very good manual of usage, organized in dictionary format and intended for lawyers. The difference between this and a general English usage manual is more attention to usage issues typical of lawyers (such as the use of “court” in lieu of “judge” in a sentence like “the court held that…”; an example of metonymy). The usage recommendations herein are generally sound but are not always fully explained; you’ll be partially substituting someone else’s judgment for your own if you follow them all, and you won’t always know why. (The someone else in question is Bryan Garner, whose judgment on these matters is quite acute, so this isn’t a big problem.) You will learn a lot from the short essays scattered throughout the book; there is one, for example, that explains metonymy.

Garner’s Modern American Usage

This is an excellent general usage manual, organized in dictionary format. It is, like the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (also by Garner), somewhat inclined to tell you what to do without explaining the history of the dispute thoroughly enough for you to decide for yourself. If you would prefer to follow the advice of a first-rate usage expert instead of figuring these things out yourself, though, this is an excellent choice. Like Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, this guide has many very valuable short essays throughout. The unique feature of this guide is its “Language-Change Index,” a number from 1-5 assigned to many of the words that attempts to show how well-accepted the usage in question is in educated writing.

The Winning Brief

This book by Bryan Garner lays out 100 tips for legal writing, normally spending a few pages on each. The tips are sound and the advice generally excellent. The book is intended to take you from the inception of the project (planning and composing) to the end (typography and general strategic tips). It is a little bit uneven in that regard, and you certainly couldn’t use it to learn legal writing in the first place. But any legal writer at any level will benefit from reading this book from cover to cover or from dipping into it at random. And it rewards rereading almost as richly as it does the first read. All lawyers who write should read it and have access to it.