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Long, long ago, when the interweb was new and I was an articling student, I had to write a conference paper for a partner — one of those pieces that ended up with his name as author and mine in a footnote.

I was doing research in the firm’s library and among my sources were conference papers by other lawyers. At one point, I said to myself, ‘Oh, wait — I’ve read this one before, haven’t I?’ When I checked the pile of binders on the table, I realised I had read the paper before — but it was ostensibly by a different author at a different firm from the one whose work I had just looked at.

I realised at once what had happened. Another stressed-out articling student with a looming deadline had just copied an earlier paper, holus bolus, and slapped the instructing lawyer’s name on it. Both papers dated from the same year, so which was the original and which the plagiary? There was no way to tell, so I cited both in my footnote and left readers to draw their own conclusions.

For a generation of articling students who have never known a world without the internet, and whose notions of copyright are perhaps a bit flexible, the opportunities for copying others’ work are legion. And deadlines from lawyers are no less pressing. How embarrassing it would be to have someone from another firm call you up and point out that your blog post or conference paper is in fact something she wrote last year, repackaged as your original work.

When I’m marking law school assignments, if a phrase sounds too polished or too technical to be the work of a 2L, I run the excerpt (in quotation marks) in the search box for legal blogs at legalresearchandwriting.ca or slaw.ca, and in Google. There are also some tools — some of them free — to be found by searching for ‘plagiarism checker’ on Google. So, see what your students have been up to…

Better yet, write your own original content.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Hansard is a very useful tool when trying to determine the intent of an act. Researchers often look at a specific section of an act and what it was intended to achieve. 

However, section numbers can change from when the bill receives First Reading to when it receives Royal Assent, so it is good to confirm what the number was for the section of interest when it was in bill form. This is especially true when reading Hansard for a very long bill. In order to do that, researchers will require a copy of how the bill read for that particular stage.

For researchers looking for federal bills, LegisINFO carries them back to 1997 and Canadiana carries them to 1974. (This does leave an unfortunate gap.)

For other jurisdictions coverage varies greatly; for example, Alberta’s bills are available online back to 1906, whereas for other jurisdictions online copies of bills are only available for the last twenty years. 

Susannah Tredwell

 

In a recent tweet, John King of CNN cautioned his followers not to ‘misunderestimate the relentless base and focus’ of Trump supporters in their drive towards November.

That word (italicised here for emphasis), attracts red underlining on the screen, signalling an issue, and attracted a raised eyebrow from me.

The mis- prefix is redundant, because you’ve already got under- working to qualify or compromise estimate.

Misunderestimate isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary — but it is in the Wikipedia entry on ‘Bushisms’.

That is, the various ‘unconventional statements, phrases, pronunciations, malapropisms, and semantic or linguistic errors in the public speaking’ of an earlier president, George W. Bush.

The 43rd president of the United States observed of his 2000 election that he had been misunderestimated by the pollsters, the media and the public.

So, King’s use of the word is a nice political allusion, as well as a warning not to discount a candidate with longer odds.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2020, GWB isn’t looking so bad (remember when he was called the ‘Worst President Ever’?). 

The reference to misunderestimating is therefore a useful reminder against complacency. 


Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Small things to watch for and avoid.

Any questions, please contact X
We’ve all seen this, and we all know what it is intended to mean.

Interpreted literally, it means the questions themselves are being directed to contact X.

It should be either If you have any questions, please … or Any questions? Please …

Convicted of eight counts
Properly, on eight counts.

Honour role
Seen in more than one student application letter or CV.

Yikes. It’s honour roll.

Unnecessary question marks
Seen recently in e-mails from partners: Let me know if this makes sense? Please let me know if you have any experience with So-and-so? I don’t see an attachment??

These are not questions, obviously. And not even two question marks will make them so.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

My sister sent me a fun article about these.

They are sentences that you think are going in one direction but which suddenly seem to go off on a weird tangent that doesn’t quite make sense.

When you read them again, you realise they do make sense but just not in the way you expected.

By way of example: The old man the boat.

Your brain probably tells you at first, ‘Oh, this is about an old man who …’ but then the path diverges and you have to figure out that man is not a noun but an unexpected (and perhaps unfortunately gendered) verb.

It’s only after a moment of thought that a seeming non-sentence makes sense.

The initial reading process is the mental equivalent of predictive text on your computer or phone screen. Your brain then has to correct its original miscue because it doesn’t like the look of a sentence without a proper verb.

Better drafting could have prevented confusion with many of the sentences in the article.

The raft floated down the river sank would be better if recast as something like The raft sank after having been floated down the river.

Add a comma after the third word of When Fred eats food gets thrown. (Actually, that one isn’t so bad as is.)

The lesson for legal writers is not to type and simply leave it at that. There will be syntactical ambiguities, errors, stylistic awkwardness, things that don’t make sense.

Come back to your piece of writing with fresh eyes. Read it aloud. Have someone else read it.

Your first draft is never as good as it could be.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

This tip is based on questions posed on the CALL listserv; thanks to John Sadler and Linda Keddy.

According to “How to look for records of … Privy Council since 1386”, a finding aid produced by the United Kingdom National Archives, royal proclamations “are formal announcements made by the King or Queen and vary greatly in nature, from declarations of war or states of emergency, to the summoning or dissolution of Parliament. … [They] were usually issued with the agreement of the Privy Council and can therefore be found in Privy Council papers.”

Unfortunately no site has a comprehensive collection of Royal Proclamations. Some, but not all, of the Privy Council records are available online through the British National Archives; you can search them at https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/advanced-search

You can also find Royal Proclamations in The London Gazette (established 1665).

If you can’t find the Royal Proclamation you’re looking for online and it pertains to something Canadian, Linda Keddy suggests going the old-fashioned route: newspapers on microform and archive files.

Susannah Tredwell

 

How would you punctuate the following?

Former Minneapolis Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin and two colleagues J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane have been charged with multiple offences in connection with the death of George Floyd.

No points for saying there should be a comma after Minneapolis; that’s too obvious.

Demerit points for suggesting there should be commas on either side of Derek Chauvin; there are multiple (former) Minneapolis cops, so the commas would be wrong, because they’d suggest Chauvin is the only one in that category.

Points for a comma after colleagues and one after Lane; you need these to define the two specific colleagues in question.

Bonus points for putting a comma after Minnesota — although I suspect it is more common now not to do that. Doesn’t make it right, although there is some benefit in not cluttering things up with commas that may not add much. 

Thanks to John Hightower of Lanier Ford in Huntsville, Alabama, for suggesting this topic.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

It happens in French too.

A lawyer in Lyons (Lyon, to use the French spelling) complained recently on Twitter about contractual drafting like this:

Par ailleurs, si l’Acquéreur envisagé en émet le souhait, celui-ci devra avoir la possibilité de…

Translated literally, that means ‘Moreover, if the prospective Acquiror indicates its desire to do so, it must have the ability to …’

As the lawyer points out, one could simply say, L’Acquéreur pourra… (’The Acquiror may …’).

This stuff drives him (and me) dingue (crazy).

Chapeau, Quentin-Alexandre Brigaud, for the tweet!

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Things seem to go awry when people use even slightly complicated sentence structure.

The venerable New York Times, usually a stickler for grammar (of an American variety), initially published this:

More familiar to we of the social media era is a type of …

This has since been corrected, changing that we to us (no doubt after readers harrumphed at the error).

You need an object for the preposition to, not a subject. It would be correct, of course, to write We of the social media era are more familiar with …

Someone else who ought to know better (an academic announcing his co-authored publication on Twitter), referred to So-and-so and mine’s book.

Yikes. That should be So-and-so’s and my…

And from the Saïd Business School at Oxford University on LinkedIn: It’s fantastic that Oxford are doing this with its MBA students.

In North America, we’d treat a university as a singular entity, not as a plural collective as they do in the UK, so the problem would have been averted.  

But even in North America we can lose sight of the number we’ve previously used, and something that was originally an it may turn into a they.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

As libraries reopen, one concern is how to deal with books that have been returned by patrons. The Australian Library and Information Association is recommending the following:

“For paper-based products, leave books untouched in a dedicated quarantine area for a 24-hour period prior to handling and recirculating. Sanitising books with liquid disinfectants can damage books and is not recommended.”

For more information on the subject, you may want to look at the Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums Project.

Susannah Tredwell