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  • Writer's pictureRob Carty

Quote Abuse

I once read a brief containing a four-page, single-spaced block quote. It annoyed me and reduced the brief’s effectiveness by about four pages.

Block quotes offer some nice features when used properly, mainly because they stand out visually. They can grab the reader’s attention (for a time), and they make pivotal text easier to find should the reader want to revisit it. So when we recite pivotal testimony, highlight key contractual or statutory language, or present a killer quote from a helpful authority, a block quote may be just the thing.

But block quotes also present two common problems.

First, they’re usually too long. Any concept can be explained in your own language without resorting to a protracted quote. Quotes can almost always be excerpted, summarized, paraphrased, or at least sliced up and presented a bite at a time. That four-page block quote? The writer made no effort to distill or subdivide this unwieldy slab of text; he just lobbed the thing into the brief and expected everyone to shoulder the load. I’d guess that roughly zero people read the whole thing, with most of them silently muttering “You’ve got to be kidding.” You just can’t saddle your readers with such chores if you want to win them over.

Second, block quotes are often too abrupt. Before you force readers to veer into an apparent detour, do them a favor and light the way. Tell them what’s coming. Not only will they be more receptive, they’ll be better equipped to comprehend and retain what you offer.

Suppose you need to quote Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 1843 (2019). The Young Me might have introduced it like this:

The Supreme Court recently observed:
Federal courts exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §1331’s grant of general federal-question jurisdiction, and Title VII’s own jurisdictional provision, 42 U. S. C. §2000e–5(f)(3) (giving federal courts “jurisdiction [over] actions brought under this subchapter”). Separate provisions of Title VII, §2000e–5(e)(1) and (f)(1), contain the Act’s charge-filing requirement. Those provisions “d[o] not speak to a court’s authority[]” . . . or “refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts[.]”

Most people won’t get through this quotation on the first try, because they can’t see your point until they make it halfway through. In the best-case scenario, they’ll go back to the beginning, reread it, and resent you for making them do it. You can avoid this by providing a little warmup:

The Supreme Court recently observed that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional:

Just by adding this small preview, you’ve prepared the reader for what’s to come. This makes for a happier reader and a more effective brief.

None of this is rocket science. It just requires the tiniest bit of effort.

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