Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and a legal writing expert, recently blogged on the exciting topic of when italics should be used for Latin words and phrases and when they can be in roman (plain) type. It must have been a slow day in the blogosphere.
His ‘fuzzy rule’ is that you can skip the italics when the word has become fully naturalised into English. So, ‘habeas corpus’ and ‘prima facie’, but ‘sensu stricto‘ and ‘in pari materia‘.
In a waspish mood, I left a comment on Garner’s blog, asking whether it wouldn’t be better to write ‘strictly speaking’ and ‘on the same subject’ for the last two of those, since our clients don’t generally converse in Latin.
Mr Garner doesn’t seem to have liked the comment, because it is still ‘awaiting moderation’ months later – but I stand by it.
If you’re acting for the Vatican or writing for an audience of learned monks, Latin is fine. Otherwise, use it only when it’s absolutely unavoidable or so widely understood that it doesn’t look like a dead, foreign language.
Lawyerly use of Latin has its pitfalls too, if you get things wrong. US lawyers use scienter as a noun (‘degree of knowledge that makes a person legally responsible for the consequences of his or her act or omission; the fact of an act’s having been done knowingly, esp. as a ground for civil damages or criminal punishment’: Black’s Law Dictionary, ed. B. Garner). But scienter is really an adverb (‘knowingly’ or ‘skilfully, expertly’).
Better to stick to the language you and your readers know than to try looking all edjumicated.
Next week: banish business jargon