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Never write or say this.

It is just a mask. There is no other kind but that worn on the face (except figuratively).

Face mask is as silly as foot shoe or head hat.

As these twenty different senses of mask that are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary will attest:

  • face-covering
  • image of a face worn by an actor
  • representation of a human or animal head
  • grotesque representation of a face worn at carnivals etc.
  • facial expression concealing emotion, giving false impression
  • human face resembling a mask
  • protective covering for the face
  • surgical dressing for the face
  • medical device placed over the mouth and nose
  • gauze or fibre covering for mouth and nose
  • gas mask
  • swimmer or diver’s watertight shield for the eyes
  • face disguised by cosmetics
  • cosmetic preparation for the face
  • likeness of someone’s face in clay or wax, especially from a mould
  • stylised representation of a face
  • face, head or skinned head of a fox or other animal
  • mouth of a dragonfly larva
  • marking on the face of an animal
  • blotchy discoloration on the face of pregnant woman

Please do wear a mask, but refer to it properly.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


One of the challenges of the last few months has been accessing materials that my library does not own. With the majority of libraries being closed, we have not been able to borrow these materials from the usual suspects. 

When looking for government publications, one useful source is the Government of Canada Publications website which includes a catalogue of over 502,000 publications and which provides online access to more than 381,000 government publications.

The website offers an advanced search feature which allows you to limit your search by such criteria as department, language, and publication date. The collection includes PDFs of older publications that have been digitized; for example, the 1930 publication “Poultry house construction, with general and detailed plans” is available for your reading pleasure.

Susannah Tredwell


Coverage, essentially.

You’ll need a little ancient Greek here.

The –demic suffix comes from demos, which means ‘the people’, ‘the community’. Demos is the root of democracy (‘rule by the people’).

The epi- bit comes from the Greek for ‘upon’, ‘at’, ‘close to’. Think of the epicentre of an earthquake.

Pan-, on the other hand, means ‘universal’. Pandemonium is total confusion or chaos; pantheism is the belief that the divine is present everywhere in the universe.

An epidemic is a disease that touches a fairly localised group; a pandemic reaches far beyond the local.

One would therefore say There was an epidemic of meningitis among high-school students in the downtown core, but The world was severely affected by the Spanish flu, AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics.

The earliest use of pandemic appears to be 1666 (a year of plague in London); epidemic goes back further – to 1603 in its current form, to the late fifteenth century as epidemy.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Microsoft has decided that it will officially join the ranks of those who consider it an error to put a double space after the end of a sentence.

(Although when I recently typed a sample paragraph in Word with the offending two spaces, no red squiggly line appeared; maybe the change has yet to be implemented, or I need to update my version of Word.)  

Double versus single spacing is one of those long-running controversies that get people — not just word nerds — all hot and bothered. There are those who get positively irrational about it, as often happens with things that don’t actually matter (like whether or not to use an Oxford comma, in most circumstances).

The explanation usually given for moving away from double spacing is the fixed (or monospace) nature of typewriter fonts, which no longer applies in the more flexible digital world, although this article from the people at the Chicago Manual of Style suggests that it is a bit more complicated than that.

Whatever the history, the first thing most professional editors will do with the piece you have submitted is to use ‘find and replace’ to reduce end-of-sentence spacing from double to single.

If you insist on keeping two spaces, Microsoft may still allow you to bypass the new default rule (if you can find where to do that in your settings — I can’t seem to), or you could use the hacks in this post.

Better yet, go with the cool kids and use just one space between sentences.

Thanks to John Hightower of Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne PC and Jennifer Prouse of Minden Gross LLP for the resources!

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Properly, it’s normality.

Just as formal leads to formality and final to finality.

But one does also see normalcy, as in this recent New York Times piece.

You won’t see the word normalcy as much outside the US, however. (And whether one has seen the concept there since 2016 is another question entirely.)

Although normalcy was used as early as 1857, the word really only came into its own in 1920, when Warren G. Harding used a return to normalcy as his campaign slogan in that year’s presidential election. He meant the conditions that had existed before WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic that came in its wake.

Harding was ridiculed by the word nerds of the day, but he won the election handily — and the word gained currency.

Normality has a slight edge in terms of history: the earliest example cited in the OED is 1839. But it’s also close to the post-classical Latin normalitas (‘the state of being governed by rules or norms’), seen as far back as the 11th century.

I’d go with normality (and let’s hope it returns soon).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


One question that comes up on a regular basis is “why can’t I find a copy of this act on CanLII?” 

One possibility is that the act is an annual statute that only amends another act (or acts), e.g. the Human Rights Code Amendment Act, 2018, S.B.C. 2018, c. 48. Not all amendment acts appear on CanLII; it depends on the jurisdiction.

If you’re not having any luck finding an act on CanLII, and its citation does not begin with “R.S.” (for Revised Statutes), you will probably want to look at the annual statutes for that jurisdiction on the appropriate Queen’s Printer or legislature’s website.

Note that CanLII does include a number of annual statutes, e.g. Canada (back to 2001), Alberta (back to 1906!), New Brunswick (back to 1974), Quebec (back to 1996) and Saskatchewan (back to 1996).

Susannah Tredwell


Oh, Mary Beard! Everyone’s favourite classicist.

She perceptively notes that old-fashioned correspondence offered subtle gradations in formality, which we haven’t quite got right with electronic mail. Beard finds e-mail inappropriately informal, strangely unpersuasive, often annoying, not conducive to genuine expressions of thanks.

Writing a letter also involved a helpful cooling-off period because you had to make the effort to find a stamp and then post your letter; this gave time for second thoughts about sending it at all.

To save her from those late-night missives sent after one glass too many, Beard wishes her laptop had a function that blocked sending anything after 11 pm, followed up by an ‘Are you sure?’ message in the morning, or a built-in breathalyser.

Like Professor Beard, I tend to dread receiving that message that opens with ‘I hope this e-mail finds you well’.

Not least because it’s usually from someone I don’t know who wants to sell me something.

But mostly because it’s such a hackneyed, insincere and vapid intro.

Really, have you nothing better to offer than this dreadful platitude? Cut to the chase and tell me what you want.

As it turns out, however, it’s not much different from the SVBEV (or SVBEEV) used as as an opener by writers of letters in ancient Rome, which stood for Si vales bene est[ego] valeo (‘If you’re OK, that’s good; I am too’).

Mary asks, are the old clichés the best clichés?

I actually think not — they’re all terrible and to be avoided; but do listen to Professor Beard on the etiquette of e-mail, letter-writing and telegrams: [/play/b098ns34

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


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.

Think before you (over-)use this.

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

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)