How NOT to Get Around Word Limits

Many of our readers are students, preparing to return to school after Christmas break. They will undoubtedly encounter essay and research paper assignments with strict requirements concerning the number of words.

For most students, the word limit is a minimum number that must be achieved. Suppose the assignment is to write a 2,000-word paper about the literary influence of William Faulkner. If your first draft comes in at 1,750 words, you can supplement the word count by adding adverbs and adjectives: “William Faulker’s works are very, very long. His sentences are way, way too long and complex. This assignment was extremely, utterly, and mind-numbingly boring.”

What if the word limit is the maximum number that can be submitted? Most students will not encounter this paradigm until graduate school. Professions such as writers, lawyers, and researchers face upper limits for written submissions.

In the legal profession, for example, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure impose a 14,000-word limit on briefs. That comes out to about 50 pages. If you can’t make your point with 50 pages, you really should rethink your method of communication. (Take a hint, Herman Melville.)

What do you do if you have more to say than the word limits will allow? One option is to be creative and use a different way of communicating, such as the lawyers who converted their briefs into comic book form. That is the sort of creativity that is commendable.

Another option — and definitely not recommended here — is to ignore the rules and write to your heart’s content. Be advised that you run the risk of offending the court when you do so.

A Medieval Solution to a Modern Problem

Consider, for example, the case of Mylward v Weldon. It dates all the way back to February 15, 1596. Long before the days of word processors, the plaintiff committed the egregious offense of submitting a document to the court that was “six score sheets of paper long” when, as the court observed, “all the matter thereof which is pertinent might have been well contrived in sixteen sheets of paper.”

The penalty for wasting the court’s time was creative and makes us long for the good old days:

“[I]t is therefore ordered, that the Warden of the Fleet shall take the said Richard Mylward, alias Alexander, into his custody, and shall bring him into Westminster Hall, on Saturday next, about ten of the clock in the forenoon, and then and there shall cut a hole in the myddest of the same engrossed replication (which is delivered unto him for that purpose), and put the said Richard’s head through the same hole, and let the same replication hang about his shoulders, with the written side outward; and then, the same so hanging, shall lead the same Richard, bare headed and bare faced, round about Westminster Hall, whilst the Courts are sitting, and shall shew him at the bar of every of the three Courts within the Hall, ….”

Source: John Lord Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England: From the Earliest Times Till the Reign of Queen Victoria, v.2 (London 1848). Click here to read more details about the case.


Another option — also not recommended — is to try to trick the court into thinking there are fewer words in your brief than there really are. Before you go down that road, you might consider what happened in the 2014 case Pi-Net International, Inc., and Arunachalam v JP Morgan Chase & Co.

Attorney William Weidner represented Dr. Lakshmi Arunachalam and her company Pi-Net International. The case involved alleged patent infringement, but the facts of the case are not important. What makes it notable is the brief that was filed by Weidner. As previously noted, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure impose a 14,000-word limit on briefs. Weidner’s brief seemingly came in under that limit at 13,862 words. Oddly, it was 67 pages long — nearly 20 pages more than would be expected.

A closer examination showed how the attorney achieved the word limit. He used cryptic abbreviations, left out some words that shouldn’t have been omitted, and got rid of the spaces in the citations.

One citation, for example, when written properly, appears thusly: Thorner v. Sony Computer Entm’t Am. LLC, 669 F.3d 1362, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2012). Using the word counting feature of a word processor, that citation includes 14 words. The way it appeared in the brief, however, was: Thornerv.SonyComputerEntm’tAm.LLC,669F.3d1362,1365-(Fed.Cir.2012). A word processor thinks that’s one word. The human eye thinks it is the bottom line of a vision exam.

Spaces were removed from citations throughout the brief, including this spectacular “one-word” example:


Another method employed by the attorney was to remove words that most readers would find necessary or helpful, such as, “a,” “an,” and “the”:

“Judge Andrews, after two years, transferred case to Judge Robinson. Markman conducted a week later. DDC ruled. Two days later, Notice of Appeal filed, against client instructions. Judges failed to recuse despite financial and relationship conflicts of interest. 60(d)(3) Motion is pending in DDC.”

It sounds like a breathless report that an exhausted reporter would gasp into the telephone receiver after running three blocks to the nearest phone booth to report a shooting.

What makes this story even more remarkable is that the attorney tried this in an earlier brief. The court rejected it and told him to edit it and resubmit a brief that complied with the letter and spirit of the rules. Instead of doing so, the attorney submitted this brief as the “corrected” version.

As much as we would have liked the court to have imposed the penalty from the 400-year-old case cited above, it took an easier route. It shouldn’t have been too surprising, either. The court dismissed the attorney’s appeal without bothering to read the atrocity.

The court’s order, citing several more examples of absurdity, can be read here.

Writers of Law Sentence You to Read Sentences

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