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I often feel like a grumpy old schoolmaster, rapping the knuckles of my hapless pupils with a ruler when they misplace a comma or mistake who’s for whose.

A certain amount of knuckle-rapping is necessary, but no one who writes about words and writing can afford to be overly prescriptive.

Language changes over time, sometimes for the better. I like text as a verb; it neatly captures a new kind of linguistic transmission we didn’t have when my knuckles were being rapped as a schoolboy. Readers of previous posts will be well aware of new words I am less fond of (productise, reference (as a verb), attendee, learnings, proactive, to name but a few).

I also don’t like the way crucial has changed in meaning from ‘that which finally decides between two hypotheses’ (crux being Latin for an instrument of torture and, by extension, a difficult problem) to merely ‘very important’, but there isn’t much I can do about it at this point.

What we think of as long-established rules sometimes turn out not to be that old: Shakespeare broke just about every grammatical and stylistic rule you can think of, mainly because it wasn’t until much later that many of them came into being (like coherent punctuation and consistent spelling). Many were invented (and the subject of vigorous debate) by writers of grammars and dictionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some rules turn out not to be as hard-and-fast as we think (between versus among, none is/are). Some are arbitrary, if useful for the sake of consistency (the ‘rules’ of legal citation, for example).

This doesn’t mean writing is a free-for-all, at least in a professional or business context. You want to write prose that your peers will recognise as technically correct and socially appropriate (in the sense of respecting norms, rather than polite). A certain amount of conformism is required, so if you want to be a linguistic radical then law may not be the best berth for you.

You don’t want to write exactly the way others do, though. That’s boring. A distinctive voice, an unexpected turn of phrase, a fresh metaphor or an unusual word will make your writing vivid and memorable. Heaven knows there are enough dull legal blog posts out there.

Writing like the herd is not only boring; it can also show lack of thought. This is what troubles me about buzzwords and jargon. In an exchange on LinkedIn, a reader suggested that what I call bad business jargon can often be useful shorthand that gets the job done when everybody understands the terminology. OK, but it can just as often be a cover for a problematic lack of actual content or analysis. The New Yorker cartoon on my desk calendar for the day of that LinkedIn exchange depicted a guy telling his audience in a business meeting, Enhanced branding metrics drive robust solutions for scalable monetization of jargon, which seemed apt. Jargon more often than not means nothing, or not much.

It’s important, particularly for lawyers, to think about the meaning of words and to use them with precision and purpose.

When words lose meaning, they can be manipulated and the underlying facts distorted. Think of the Twitterer-in-Chief or his precursors in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

But perhaps I have just been spending too much time alone in my apartment.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Never underestimate the tendency of people – and legally trained people, especially – to say things twice, unnecessarily.

Both
Think before you (over-)use this.

It is superfluous here: The plaintiff seeks both compensatory and punitive damages.

Co-conspirator
To conspire necessarily involves combination or agreement with at least one other person to do something wrong. Co­- and con– come from the same Latin root indicating joint action, so you need only one of them.

Yes, the OED cites examples of co-conspirator from the 1860s, but they are in a list of co– words that are described as either rare or one-offs.

Co-conspirator, as used today, is an ugly and unnecessary creation of the Watergate years. Regrettably, it occurs in both the federal Competition Act and the Military Rules of Evidence.

More particularly
No, just particularly. It’s unqualifiable.

Better yet, avoid this weak adverb.

Pre-rolled joint
This contains two pleonastic elements.

A joint is a cigarette containing marijuana (or, as federal legislation still quaintly spells it, marihuana). A cigarette is, by definition, rolled into shape (whether by hand or by machine). There are no unrolled joints – that would just be loose weed.

Redundancy number 2 is the prefix pre-. As in formulations like pre-heated and pre-owned, that prefix adds nothing useful, because there is an implied priority to the verb. One doesn’t post-heat or post-own or post-roll.

To recapitulate, all joints are rolled in advance of smoking. And a joint is rolled anyway.

Just a joint, then.

Still remains
If something is still around, it simply remains. (and it doesn’t remain the same, either – remaining involves sameness).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Elderly is a tricky word.

In North America, it’s used as a euphemistic — or at least less harsh — way to say old. Example: The elderly are considered among those at the greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus.

What the threshold age is for that is more difficult to determine. Sixty years is the number generally seen in relation to COVID-19, but otherwise it might be set at 65 or higher. Sixty-five is the new 55?

A further complication is that usage of the word is different in the United Kingdom (and perhaps Australia, New Zealand and other dominions beyond the seas). There, it is used to mean ’not old, but getting up there’. The -ly suffix operates like -ish or -like, essentially.So, anywhere from about 50?

North Americans seem not to like referring to harsh realities like old age: a senior citizen here would be an old age pensioner (or OAP) in the UK.

And heaven forbid that anyone should mention death in Canada or the USA; people now pass away or even just pass, both dreadful, mealy-mouthed circumlocutions.

That happens in the UK too, of course. It used to be that people who had completed their studies at Oxford (gone down, in university parlance) were called old members, regardless of age. Now they are alumni, the American, academic, Latinate, age-neutral term. The cricket and rowing teams for Magdalen College alumni are still called the Withered Lilies, however — a reference to the flowers, in more flourishing condition, found in the college arms.

A colleague recently bristled when someone described her as elderly, but perhaps the person using the adjective was British, in which case it was accurate.

But I didn’t point that out.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

LegisInfo provides committee information (e.g. the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology) back to the 35th Parliament, 1st Session (1994). 

However if you need to research parliamentary committees prior to this date, you can use the Library of Parliament’s Canadian Parliamentary Historical Resources. These cover the 6th Parliament (1887-1888) to the 34th Parliament (1988-1993).

Unfortunately, while you can view the committee proceedings online, they cannot be downloaded as PDFs at this time. 

Susannah Tredwell

 

I groan (inwardly) every time I see or hear the word syllabi at the law school where I teach.

Syllabus has become fully acclimatised and should go the way of normal English plurals: syllabuses.

In the same category is forum. Your Latin teacher (if you had one), would have insisted on the plural fora, of course. Both fora and forums are correct in English (although auto-correct wants to turn fora into for a).

Forums is preferable, and there is judicial authority for this view: see the words of Belobaba J in Leon v Volkswagen AG, 2018 ONSC 4265 at para 40 n 33.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Some further things to expunge from your professional (and non-professional) vocabulary.

Availability

This is, like functionality, a multisyllabic word that can usefully be replaced by something short and simple – and therefore clear and direct.

Not What’s your availability? A simple Are you free? (or busy or maybe even available) will do fine.

And not I have no availability – just I’m busy.

Piece

People will talk about the employment piece or the environmental piece of a transaction or what-have-you.

Conceptually it’s unobjectionable; it describes a part of a larger whole, an aspect of the bigger picture, an element of something more complex.

It’s just that it’s overused and therefore a bit weary. Couldn’t you try to vary things by referring to the employment issues (or aspects or components or …)?

Synergies

This is just jazzing up the ordinary with pseudo-scientific lingo. Why not just there are opportunities for co-operation (or collaboration), affinities, associations, links …?

Tweak

We don’t seem to revise or edit documents now; invariably we tweak them.

Originally, to tweak someone’s nose was to pull and twist that person’s proboscis. It came to be used figuratively, and at some point (in the 1960s?) it was applied to the making of fine adjustments to a car or other machine.

And from there to legal documents. Not sure how or why; and again, it’s OK in principle but worn-out from use. Find a new metaphor or go back to a plain, non-metaphoric description.

(More recently, to tweak (out) is to become twitchy from using amphetamines or meth. Not to be confused with twerk.)

Value proposition

If piece is overused, this one is done to death. What’s the value proposition?

Instead of this hackneyed phrase, try something simple like What value does it offer? What is it worth? What are you offering? Even What do you bring to the table? is better, though a bit trite.

Anything but the worn-out cliché of the value proposition.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Burden

In a recent news release, the Ontario Securities Commission said this: ‘Most recently, the OSC announced 107 regulatory changes to reduce burden for market participants while maintaining critical investor protections.’

Good initiative, but the use of burden annoys me. The burden or the regulatory burden would be better: a specific thing, not a general state of affairs. A burden is a discrete load one bears, not the sum of all loads.

The load can be figurative, of course, whether it’s the weight of duty, blame, sin, responsibility, proof or securities regulation.

Stigma

Another word that gets used in the same way is stigma.

This is a borrowing from Greek, meaning the mark of a pointed instrument like a branding iron. The Greek plural stigmata is often used to describe the marks of the nails on the crucified body of Jesus.

In figurative use, a stigma is a mark or brand of disgrace, infamy and the like. We used to talk, for example, of the stigma of illegitimacy.

But stigma is now used as a word to describe the totality of shame-inducing responses to some state of affairs.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto uses stigma in grammatically correct ways, but also less well.

This is good: Challenging the stigma associated with mental illness takes understanding, education and a closer look at our own attitudes toward health.

Less so: Take a positive step toward addressing stigma with this online tutorial.

The sentiment is to be applauded; the usage could be better.

Chattel

The legal term chattel is often similarly (mis)used. A chattel is an item of movable personal property, with the plural chattels denoting a collection of such stuff.

Perhaps because of a perceived similarity with the collective cattle (and the two words in fact have a shared etymology), chattel sometimes gets used as a general/collective rather than a specific term: ‘Are we just going to be chattel for commerce?’ (New York Times, 24 January 2020, citing a 1997 Federal Trade Commission hearing).

Keep all three of these specific, with definite or indefinite articles attached.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

British Columbia’s Hansard (the transcripts of the Legislative Assembly) was not published until 1970, making researching the intent behind a piece of pre-1970 legislation challenging.

Happily for researchers, the BC Legislative Assembly Sessional Clippings books from 1891 to 1972 are now available through the University of Victoria. These sessional clippings books “include newspaper accounts written by various legislative reporters who covered debates occurring in the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.”

Susannah Tredwell

 

As used (or not) in the names of countries.

One does still occasionally hear or see the Ukraine, but be careful not to use that around people of Ukrainian origin. They can get very shirty about it.

Their point is that the definite article the makes the country sound more like a region, like the Midwest or the Highlands – and, by implication, a sub-division of some larger entity.

And we all know which larger entity most Ukrainians are not longing to be part of again…

This is all fair enough, geopolitically speaking, but perhaps not linguistically.

First, Ukrainian (like other Slavic languages) uses no articles at all (no a, an or the), so perhaps can’t really dictate when English uses them.

Secondly, there are countries that do take an article as part of their names.

The definite article is part of the official names of The Gambia and The Bahamas.

The definite article is often – even usually – used with a range of other nations, as a matter of idiom. Many are archipelagos or include a form of government as part of the name, but not all: Central African Republic, Channel Islands, Comoros, Congo, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Lebanon (especially for those who know their Human League back catalogue), Maldives, Marshall Islands, Netherlands, Philippines, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Sudan, United Kingdom, United States of America, Yemen.

(The) Congo and The Gambia each takes its name from the river that runs through it.

But, if you’re likely to be read or heard by Ukrainians, the country is just Ukraine.

The Dominican is also likely to irritate Dominicans, for whom it is always the Dominican Republic (or sometimes even the historical Santo Domingo).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

This was the headline of a recent LinkedIn post: Cryptocurrency do’s, don’ts and dangers. Think before you use the apostrophe and you’ll do it correctly: Dos, don’ts and dangers. At least it wasn’t danger’s in the original.

And, without catastrophic apostrophes, it is No ifs, ands or buts.

The possessive forms of women, children and men also seems to cause problems, because they take ‘s (which is more usually attached to a singular noun, not a plural one). As a result, women’s hockey, children’s toys and men’s room.

The compounds menswear, womenswear and childrenswear are rather ugly compressed versions of two-word forms with proper apostrophes (men’s wear etc.), but a trip to a local department store will probably confirm that one-word, apostrophe-less compounds have become the norm. (Although on the computer screen, only menswear appears without a squiggly red line of warning under it.)

It was (almost) certainly a one-off, or at least an idiosyncratic error, but I’ve encountered ‘though. No: it’s though or although.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)