April 23, 2014
I recently got caught making a mistake with my comma usage. I’m a former English professor, and now, as a lawyer, my fellow lawyers come to me for grammar and writing advice all the time—so getting caught in a mistake sort of stung a little. I figure this means a brief recap of proper comma usage might be in order. After all, if an English-professor-turned-professional-brief-writer (i.e., appellate attorney) can use a refresher on comma usage, maybe some other folks can use one too.
My mistake had to do with dates. Here’s the rule: When you include the day, you should always separate the year with commas. For example: “The plaintiff filed suit on April 23, 2014, alleging fraud and breach of contract.” But when you use only the month and year (no day), do not separate them with a comma. For example: “The defendant started his business in April 2006.” As our team was drafting a brief on appeal, I kept inserting commas between the month and the year, until someone spoke up and told me I was wrong.
Of course, I’m totally convinced—I swear!—that I had learned that the year should always be set off with commas. And I’m still convinced that this used to be the rule, twenty years ago—though I haven’t found a history of comma usage to confirm whether I’m right or wrong about this.
But the real lesson to be learned here is that sometimes we think we know something—we can be totally convinced that we know what we’re doing, and that we’re doing it right—when in fact we’re not. We’re wrong. This is why—no matter how smart and awesome we think we are—we lawyers should always be looking for ways to improve (and update) our writing.
Bottom line: Don’t separate the year with a comma unless the day is included.
On a related note, lawyers are fond of using dates as adjectives. For example: “The court issued its order following the April 2002 hearing.” The date modifies (i.e., identifies) the hearing, so it’s an adjective. So this question often arises: Should I use two commas to separate the year if I’m including the day as part of my adjective? For example: “The court issued its order following the April 16, 2002, hearing.” Good question.
The Chicago Manual of Style and many other style guides say yes: use both commas. But Bryan Garner says no, don’t use the second comma (after the year), because it interrupts the flow too much. Thus, according to Garner: “The court issued its order following the April 16, 2002 hearing.”
Personally, I think using dates as adjectives is awkward to begin with, and can often be avoided altogether. For example: “After a hearing on April 16, 2002, the court issued its order.” But if you must use a date as an adjective, including the day, then I’m with Garner on the commas. Drop the second one.
One more related reminder, regarding commas and locations: Always separate the state (or country) with commas, when you refer to both city and state (or city and country). For example: “The plaintiff signed the contract in Prosper, Texas, but established her business in London, England.”
Oh yeah, and always put the comma inside the quotation mark. Never outside. Commas and periods always go inside the quotation mark. If there’s an exception to that rule, I haven’t encountered it yet—so if you know of one, please tell me about it in the comments.