These are the ten most common errors that our Department of Communication in English correct every day, and our tips to help you avoid them.
THAT AND WHICH
We use 'that' for restrictive clauses. These modify, focus and limit. The information they give is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and they are not set off by commas.
The contract that the parties entered into last month establishes their rights and obligations.
(There are a number of contracts. Only the one entered into last month establishes the parties’ rights and obligations.)
We use 'which' for non-restrictive clauses. These supply additional information that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, and they are set off by commas.
The contract, which the parties entered into last month, establishes their rights and obligations.
(Only one contract is under discussion. It establishes the parties’ rights and obligations and, coincidentally, was entered into last month.)
Click here for a more elaborate explanation and more examples.
We do not capitalize titles and law-related authorities to emphasize importance, as this only distracts readers and creates confusion. There is almost never a reason to capitalize 'judge', 'tax inspector' or 'court'. They are not proper nouns.
'President' is only capitalized immediately before the name of a president of a country. The same applies to titles like 'doctor', 'professor' and 'judge' when referring to a specific person. Never capitalize those words when they refer only to occupations.
We agree with Judge Brady’s view of the case.
We agree with the judge’s view of the case
We (and the Chicago Manual of Style) recommend using lower case for almost everything. This link is useful when in doubt.
SINGULAR AND PLURAL
There are singular and plural differences between English and Spanish, but no golden rules. A good start is to remember the points below:
Organizations and institutions are singular.
Example: The company is restructuring its organization.
Management is singular.
Example: Company management has introduced a new policy.
'News' is singular.
Example: What is the exciting news you wanted to tell me?
'People' is plural. The singular is 'person'.
Example: Some people are playing football.
Some nouns end in -ics but are not plural, such as “athletics,” “gymnastics,” “mathematics,” “physics,” “electronics,” “economics,” and “politics.”
Example: Gymnastics is my favorite sport.
OF AND FROM
Prepositions in other languages often wreak havoc. 'Of' and 'from' are no exception.
We use 'of':
- with possession (“the title of the book”);
- in some expressions with be + adjective (“it was nice of you to come”);
- after some adjectives, including “afraid,” “ashamed,” “aware/unaware,” “capable,” “fond,” “proud,” “sure/certain,” and “tired;” and
- after some verbs, including “accuse,” “complain,” “dream,” “remind” and “think.”
We use 'from':
- to refer to origins (“Joe comes from England;” “the passage is from a poem by Lord Byron”);
- with “to” and “until” to mark the beginning and end of an action in time (“we will be in London next week from Tuesday until Friday”); and
- after some verbs, including “borrow,” “disappear,” “discourage,” “prevent” and “protect.”
Place currency symbols before the amount of money. Write “€500,” not “500 €.” Avoid strange variations, such as “200K” and “12M€.”
AND, OR AND AND/OR
In English, 'or' is exclusive and suggests alternatives; 'and' is inclusive and links a series of adjectives, nouns, phrases or sentences.
The director is liable for damages arising from fraud, omission or malpractice.
(The director is only liable for one offense, which does not make sense).
The director is liable for damages arising from fraud, omission and malpractice.
(The director is liable for all three offences, which makes sense).
Avoid 'and/or' at all costs. Few defend it, and many detest “that befuddling, nameless thing, that Janus-faced monstrosity, neither word nor phrase, the child of a brain of someone too lazy or too dull to express his precise meaning, or too dull to know what he did mean,” to cite Justice Chester A. Fowler.
The weight of authority is against the use of “and/or” because (i) it can result in uncertainty, and (ii) it is not a real word. Where it seems necessary, try using “or…, or both.”
“Take a sleeping pill or a hot drink, or both.”
If you are still not convinced, click here to see what other judges have to say.
IF AND WHETHER
Use 'if' for conditional sentences. A condition must be satisfied before something occurs.
If the client telephones, I will arrange a meeting for next week.
Use 'whether' to present two alternatives (that are not a condition). Do not use “or not” after “whether” as this is already implied.
I could not decide whether or not to tell him the truth.
Inform the employees whether they must give their consent. (In this example, the two alternatives are that the employees (i) must give their consent, and (ii) are not required to give their consent. They must be informed in either case)
Inform the employees if they must give their consent. (The employees must only be informed if they must give their consent. Their consent is a condition.)
Use 'whether' after prepositions.
We must make a decision on whether you stay.
Use 'whether' before infinitives.
We discussed whether to take the matter any further.
Shall we, will we or must we: that is the question. This is likely to raise the hairs on the back of some necks, but when we draft legal documents, we aim to establish clear rights and obligations through words of authority. Inconsistent use and interpretation of these words will create ambiguity. As “shall” can refer to a duty, an obligation, a possibility, and a future intention, it is best to use “must” or “will,” depending on the context, as the meanings of these are clear and never misunderstood.
Take this example: “Interest Rate shall mean a rate per annum of 9%.” This sentence is ambiguous, first because it could point to a future event. When will interest rate mean that, exactly? Second, an interest rate is not obliged to do or “mean” anything. In this sentence, using “means” makes more sense than “shall mean” because it avoids the future problem and the obligation problem. More importantly, “means” is more concise.
COMMAS AND POINTS IN FIGURES
It is simple: when writing numbers in English, use a comma where you would use a point in Spanish, and a point where you would use a comma. Use a comma to separate sequences of three digits and a period for decimal points. “1,345,200.34” is correct. “1.345.200,34” is incorrect and perplexing for an English speaker.
EASILY CONFUSED WORDS AND 'FALSE FRIENDS'
Damage: To cause harm (verb); harm suffered (noun)
The fire damaged the house.
The damage caused to the property.
Damages: Amount paid as compensation in a claim
The court awarded €10,000 in damag3The plaintiff filed a claim for damages.
Procedure: A way of doing something, especially the correct or usual way
Companies use several testing procedures to select candidates.
It is standard procedure to use electronic material as evidence.
Proceedings: The actions taken, usually in court, to settle a legal matter. It is plural.
The proceedings were transferred to a higher court for enforcement.
The bankruptcy proceedings lasted one year.
Assist: To help. The noun is “assistance.”
He assisted me in preparing my application for an MBA program.
The government promised financial assistance to affected families.
Attend: We attend meetings and other events. The noun is “attendance.”
I cannot attend the meeting tomorrow.
The records show that attendance has dropped.
Last, but definitely not least, an abogado poderoso is not a “powerful avocado.”