Many of us harbor deep, subliminal fears about writing in subparagraphs. We wonder when we should use subparagraphs instead of prose or bullets. We forget how to punctuate the little buggers. And we sweat about grammar—particularly “parallel construction.” Let’s address each fear.
When to Use Subparagraphs
Subparagraphs are helpful if you have a list of similar items and some items are more important than others or the order of the items matters. If all the items are equally important, you can use Bullets instead.
How to Punctuate the Little Buggers
When using subparagraph format:
- put a colon at the end of the phrase that introduces the subparagraphs;
- put a number at the beginning of each subparagraph;
- conclude each numbered subparagraph with a semicolon;
- put and or or after the semicolon in the penultimate paragraph; and
- end the last subparagraph with a period.
Since White Space is so delicious, your reader will love you for indenting your subparagraphs and putting a blank line between them.
If you are the squishy type, you can squeeze your subparagraphs into a traditional paragraph, with no indents and no line spaces. The squishy version is fine if you have only a few subparagraphs, but otherwise the white-space version goes down more easily. The same rules apply in the squishy format: (1) use a colon to introduce the subparagraphs; (2) put a number at the beginning of each subparagraph, but put the number in parentheses so it is easy to pick out of text; (3) put a semicolon at the end of each subparagraph; (4) put and or or at the end of the penultimate paragraph; and (5) finish with a period.
In other words, your subparagraphs should look like the subparagraphs I just wrote.
The All-Important And or Or
In legal writing, the words and or or are often the most important part of the subparagraph, so be sure that you use them correctly. And signifies that every element of the test matters. The five parts of misrepresentation, for example, always require the word and because a party must satisfy all five elements of the test. If the elements are optional or interchangeable use or.
Never ever use and/or. And/or is sloppy, ugly writing and it fails the test for plain English because it’s not a phrase we would use in conversation. (If you use and/or in conversation, your problems are far deeper than anything I can help you with here.)
Writers frequently make grammatical errors when writing subparagraphs because the front half of their sentence (the part before the colon) does not fit nicely with the back half (the part after the colon). To avoid these grammatical errors, “glue” the front and back of the sentence together. Mentally copy the words in each subparagraph to the end of the introductory phrase before the colon. Does the glued-together sentence make grammatical sense? If not, make whatever edits are necessary to make the two halves of the sentence fit together grammatically. Do this for each subparagraph.
Or simply begin each sentence the same way. Even the most subparagraph-challenged writers usually write the first subparagraph correctly. So use the same construction in later subparagraphs and your subparagraphs will glue together in the most grammatically wonderful way. For example, in my subparagraphs above, each subparagraph begins with a command: put, put, conclude, put, end.
So fear not. Number away.