Syntax: Capitalization in Legal Writing

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Similar to improper comma placements, improper capitalization plagues today’s legal writing. Here are six of the most common capitalization crimes to avoid!

(1) Titles and Headings:

  • Rule: Avoid ALL CAPS unless court rules require them. Instead, capitalize every word unless it’s (1) a preposition that has fewer than five letters (of, with); (2) a conjunction (and, or); or (3) an article (a, an, or the). But capitalize an article, conjunction, or preposition if it’s the first or last word of the title, or if it follows a dash or colon. For hyphenated words, capitalize both words.

(2) Legal Terms:

  • Rule: Capitalize legal terms when they refer to a specific law, regulation, or principle (the Fifth Amendment, Civil Rights Act).

(3) Party Names:

  • Rule: Lowercase part affiliations (defendant, plaintiff, appellant) unless you’re referring to the parties in the current dispute. Either way, skip the articles: “Defendant has failed to show . . . .” Not:The Defendant.”

(4) Court:

  • Rule: Lowercase court unless you’re referring to (1) the U.S. Supreme Court; or (2) the court you’re addressing in your document.
  • Exception—Specific Court Name: When referring to a court by its official name, capitalize court (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas).

(5) Federal, State, Commonwealth:

  • Rule: Lowercase these words unless the word they modify is capitalized (Federal Reserve), they are part of a title (Commonwealth of Virginia), or you’re referring to a party (State v. Jones). You should thus lowercase “state law” and “federal law.”

(6) Orders & Motions:

  • Rule: Lowercase these words when they are used generically to describe a category of actions or papers: “Defendant in this action has filed a motion to dismiss.” But capitalize the words when they describe a specific document: “But they disagree, as indicated in Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.” Or “Plaintiff hereby files this Response to the Court’s Order.”

Now since you’ll have three weeks to respond to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, here are a few practice problems to help pass the time!

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1. Which of these sentences uses proper title-case capitalization for a heading?

2 / 4

2. Which of the following correctly capitalizes the relevant court document?

3 / 4

3. How should the word “court” be capitalized in the following sentence: Yet this _____ then decided in favor of Plaintiff.

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4. Which of the following correctly capitalizes the party name?

Your score is

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