All Our Research Tips
This was my grade-10 English teacher’s expression for useless verbiage. Other ways to say it: throat-clearing, filler, circumlocution, BS.
Examples (and what to say instead):
a number of some, many
as a means of to
as prescribed by in, under
as to whether if, whether
at the present time now
by means of by, with
concerning about, on [and don’t misuse ‘concerning’ for ‘of concern’, ‘disturbing’, ‘troubling’]
due to the fact that since, because
during the time that during, while
for a/the period of for
have an adverse effect on hurt, set back, impair
including but not limited to including [the ‘but not limited to’ bit doesn’t actually add anything, does it?]
in an orderly fashion [I can’t think why you’d want to say this in the first place]
in a timely manner promptly, on time
in accordance with by, following, under
in addition also, too
in order for for
in order that so
in order to to
in other words [remove and rephrase whatever you said before so you don’t then have to clarify it]
in/with regard to about, on
in relation to about, to, with
in sum [a lawyerism that people picked up in 1L; lose it and just summarise/conclude]
in the event that if
in the process of [leave it out and don’t replace; it adds nothing]
in view of because, since
it is interesting to note that [if you have to say this, it probably isn’t interesting; just leave it out]
pertaining to about, of, on
please find enclosed/attached I enclose/attach OR the [whatever it is] is enclosed/attached [even in the days of snail mail, was it really ever a challenge to locate the extra thing in the envelope with the letter? be gone, nineteenth-century nonsense!]
provides guidance to guides
pursuant to under, according to
put another way [see ‘in other words’; you might also want to rethink ‘for greater certainty’, even in contractual drafting]
regarding about, on
relative to about, on
set forth in in
the fact that [omit and rephrase, so that ‘The fact that the borrower defaulted …’ becomes something like ‘The borrower’s default …’]
the question as to whether if, whether, the question whether
until such time as until
with reference to about
with respect to about
with the exception of except
De-clutter your prose by eliminating verbose (and hackneyed) words and phrases.
–Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)
Common CanLII Questions Answered!
I recently sat down with CanLII’s Manager of Content and Partnerships, Sarah Sutherland, to learn what’s new and to ask some common CanLII questions I get from my own users — chief among them being “Are there any decisions I should know about that aren’t on CanLII?”
There’s no one single tip here today, but in the spirit of SlawTips, this is a short read that we hope will be informative and help you work smarter!
— Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)
Q (Bronwyn Guiton): What sorts of decisions would readers be surprised to learn aren’t actually available on CanLII?
A (Sarah Sutherland): Most routine matters aren’t written up in decisions, so the information related to them is not generally publicly available online. This means that the information available on CanLII (or any source of caselaw) for subjects like sentencing is mostly for unusual matters and outcomes.
Q: Are there areas of CanLII’s decisions collections that readers might be surprised to learn about the depth or breadth of?
A: We have content going back to the 19th century and are regularly adding more historical content.
Q: CanLII just added Federal and Quebec annual statutes to the site. What do you see as the value added there?
A: This is content that people are already looking for on CanLII, so adding it makes the site more complete. When annual statutes are passed they are added to CanLII, but as the sections that amend other acts come into force they are removed from the acts they came from in the consolidated legislation collections and only appear in the amended acts. Adding annual statutes allows researchers to find this content more easily.
Q: These days, most barristers are comfortable submitting the CanLII PDF’s of decisions to court, but they still copy older decisions from print reporters. Do you see that changing at all as time goes on?
A: I think that as the legal profession generally gets more comfortable with electronic files and confident that others will be too, native electronic files will be more commonly used. Judges are in a strong position to influence this transition. In The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company v High Park Medical & Rehabilitation Centre Ltd, 2015 ONSC 5169, Justice Myers wrote “Scanning and emailing pdf copies of case law is one of the biggest wastes of the profession’s collective time.”
My thanks to Sarah Sutherland for answering these CanLII questions for SlawTips.
Get Your Pronouns Right
It’s astonishing how many people have trouble with personal pronouns.
Perhaps like Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, they think it’s somehow inelegant to say me – so the heroine of that classic book says ‘A girl like I’. But (between you and me) that’s wrong: it should be ‘A girl like me’, of course.
Others, faced with the awful choice between I and me, opt for what they think is the safer ground of myself. This is less wrong (if that’s possible), but not ideal – and it leads to weird constructions like ‘Mohammed and myself went to the meeting’. Myself is best used reflexively (I asked myself) or for emphasis (I did it myself).
To refresh, I, you, he, she, we and they are subjects; me, you, him, her, us and them are objects.
Example: She did that to me not Her did that to I.
So, how to get it right every time? Five simple rules:
1. After a preposition
After at, between, from, in, of, on etc., the pronoun will always be an object (me, him, her, us, them NOT I, she, him, we, they) [you is easy – it’s both a subject and an object, so you’ll never get that one wrong].
So between you and me, it’s ‘a girl like me’.
2. Take out the extra person
When in doubt, take out the extra person.
If you think it might be ‘She invited Jacques and I to the meeting’, remove Jacques from the picture and you’re left with ‘She invited I to the meeting’, which obviously can’t be right.
3. Add missing words
Is it ‘she is older than him’?
No. What you’re saying is ‘she is older than he is‘, so it’s actually ‘older than he’ (although in colloquial speech, him would be just about acceptable).
4. Subject is always ‘I’ (not ‘me’)
The subject of a sentence can never be me, him, her etc.
People routinely say ‘Mary and her went to the meeting’, but it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Rule 2 will help you here too (‘her’ didn’t go, did she?).
5. ‘To be’ takes ‘I’ (technically)
If you’re a purist, the verb to be should always take I (subjective completion) not me (object).
This may sound a bit archaic in conversation, however, and your humble scribe won’t wince if you say ‘Hi, it’s me’. On the other hand, ‘It is I’ or ‘This is she’ can have a satisfyingly forbidding effect on cold callers who ask to speak to you by name.
- Preposition + me
- Take out the extra person
- Add the extra words
- Subject is always I not me
- To be takes I (except when it sounds fussy)
–Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)
Clarify the Question
Summer students have just started at my firm. One of the things that we emphasize in training is that if they don’t understand what they have been asked to do, they need to go back to the lawyer and clarify the question. While it may be embarrassing to have to go back and ask, it’s far better than discovering that they’ve researched the wrong thing.
This principle doesn’t just apply to students. Library staff get asked questions that need to be clarified or elaborated on. Sometimes the person asking the question knows so much about the area, they assume everyone else does. Sometimes the problem is that the question is phrased too generally, so the resources we come up with aren’t relevant or specific enough. Sometimes the question is being asked by a student based on a question they have been asked by a lawyer, and crucial elements have been lost in translation. And sometimes the reason that we don’t understand the question is because the person who is asking the question doesn’t either. In those situations the process of clarifying the question often ends up answering the original question.
–Ice, –Ise, –Ize
Verb endings: a small but tricky point.
If you’re from the USA, the practice (noun) of law is practiced (verb) by lawyers. If you’re from the UK, the practice is practised. Here in Canada, we see both verb forms – but preferred usage (by me, anyway) is to go British.
So, is it admitted to practice or admitted to practise? Either is defensible: the first means admitted to the practice of law, the second permitted to engage in practising. Practice is better in this context, on the grounds the noun is what people probably have in mind (although maybe not in the States).
The practice/practise distinction has the advantage of being consistent with another verb that describes what we do: we provide legal advice, but we advise our clients on the law. (Distressingly, advise is cropping up as a noun, perhaps as a result of the vagaries of spellcheck. It’s just plain wrong.)
The Brits often use –ise for other verbs too, as readers of The Economist will know: realise, rationalise, amortise and the like. The advantage of this over –ize is that you don’t have to remember the small number of verbs that always take the –ise ending (including advertise, devise, surprise*).
But practice is divided even in the UK: the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford and Cambridge university presses and The Times all prefer –ize.
Whether you adopt –ise or –ize, do at least get the noun-verb distinction right with practice and practise, advice and advise.
Next tip: get your pronouns right
*Although readers of Jane Austen will know that the spelling of some of these words has changed over time: her characters are surprized not surprised.
–Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)
Subscribe to Government & Court Press Releases
Press releases are a good source of free current awareness alerts and a legitimate resource for understanding the intent of new legislation. I’m sharing a few of my favourite sources for timely and helpful press releases today. I’m a BC law librarian so I use these three sources often. Please share your own favourite sources for press releases for your area of Canada in the comments!
Supreme Court of Canada – There are two places you can sign up for press releases from the SCC, but if you want the most timely updates, get this one*, not this one. I like these press releases because they give you a 2-4 day heads up on which applications for leave to appeal will be decided each Thursday and which appeals will come out each Friday.
BC Government – If you sign up for press releases for your area of interest and choose to get them “as soon as it’s published”, you’ll be the first to know when a relevant bill is introduced in the BC legislature. Not only is this a great real-time alert for legislative developments, but the press release often links to backgrounders and the full text of the bill. Also, the press release is the first place you’ll learn about the intent of a bill, since it will be available long before Hansard. Because the BC government press releases are so comprehensive and timely, they’re the perfect document to flip to a client when an important bill comes down.
Federal Department of Finance – The central fire hose of federal government press releases is overwhelming and often omits significant niche announcements. I recommend signing up for email delivery of individual Ministry press releases instead, such as for the Department of Finance. The option to receive press releases about new Notices of Ways and Means Motions will keep the tax lawyers among us happy, while the option to receive press releases on new public consultations is important for solicitors advising clients on lobbying opportunities.
—Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)
* The SCC press release mailing list I prefer is often difficult to subscribe to from institutional internet connections. Make a note to subscribe at home on your personal internet connection instead
Strive for neutrality, or at least balance.
As Richard Wydick suggests in his excellent Plain English for Lawyers, ‘many readers, both women and men, will be distracted and perhaps offended if you use masculine terms to refer to people who are not necessarily male.’
Wydick also notes that it’s equally distracting to use ‘clumsy efforts to avoid masculine terms’, or to use only feminine terms to redress imbalance (and the latter has a sort of law-school ring to it, which may not be what you’re aiming for). And we can safely leave the androgynous new coinages xe and hir to graduate students in gender studies.
Ways to go gender-neutral:
- use both masculine and feminine: each client will have to consider his or her own circumstances
- omit the pronoun altogether: the client will need to make the decision (or a client) instead of the client will need to make his own decision
- use ‘you’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’: as a consumer, you’ll need to make your own choice rather than each consumer must decide for himself
- use ‘it’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ (this may often work, if many of your clients are not natural persons): the banks’ customer will have to decide for itself not the bank’s customer will have to decide for himself or herself
- use the plural: bank customers will have to decide for themselves
- repeat the noun: a client will have to decide whether this is appropriate for that client’s particular circumstances rather than …for her circumstances
- alternate between masculine and feminine: this can look awkward and artificial, however, and you can mess up where a pronoun should actually be gendered, thereby giving someone an accidental sex change
- use the passive voice: not recommended, as it weakens the impact of your writing
- terminology: chair not chairman, representative not spokesman (although fisherfolk sounds silly, and fishers not much better – nor would I recommend referring to the four horsepersons of the Apocalypse)
Ways not to:
- he/she or his/her: ugly (don’t even get me started on (s)he)
- their or themselves: fine if your antecedent is plural (clients will need to assess their needs themselves) but NEVER if it’s singular (a client will need to assess their needs is wrong, wrong, wrong; say its needs or his or her needs)
Next tip: –ice, –ise, –ize
–Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)
Don’t Forget Google Scholar
Google Scholar is a useful way to start a search of academic literature, particularly for subject areas for which you have limited or no access to the relevant databases. Google Scholar has indexed an impressive number of academic articles; a 2014 study estimated that it contained just under 100 million English-language academic documents.
Google Scholar uses the same search syntax as Google. Searches can also be limited by author (e.g. Author:Tredwell), name of publication, and publication date. You can also limit search results to those that have links to the full text of the paper.
Although the majority of references in Google Scholar are just to citation information, where available it includes links to the full text of papers. If you are trying to find a specific paper that someone has cited, Google Scholar is a good place to start looking.
–Susannah Tredwell (@hannasus)
Think About Lay-Out and Design
If you’re lucky, you’ll have marketing or communications folks who will prepare your piece for publication, but there are some design aspects you should be thinking about too.
Dense blocks of text are hard on the eyes. Too many words will repel readers.
Think about breaking up long paragraphs and sentences so your piece is easier to read.
Headings and sub-headings
A useful way to impose order when you’re writing – and to guide the reader when the piece is published.
Avoid long quotations. As Matthew Butterick says in his illuminating book, Typography for Lawyers:
‘Lawyers sometimes put voluminous material into a block quotation intending to signal “Hey, I quoted a lot of this source because it’s really important!” The actual signal a reader often gets is “Hey, I didn’t write any of this, I just cribbed it from somewhere else!”‘
As a result, readers tend to skip big chunks of quoted text.
You’re better to quote only the essential bits, integrate the rest into your own text or, if a long quotation is absolutely necessary, explain what it says before you quote (on the assumption the reader won’t actually read the quotation).
Bulleted and numbered lists
These are really helpful:
- they’re easy to read
- they provide emphasis and
- they break up your text
Keep each item in the list short, though. Punctuation optional after each item (more modern and elegant without it).
Boldface and italics
As Butterick points out, ‘if everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized.’
Bold and italics are also harder to read than roman (regular) text.
Next on the agenda: go gender-neutral
–Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)
Don’t Forget About SITE: Search
In what is becoming a biennial tradition here on SLAW Tips, I want to remind everyone about SITE: search, one of the advanced search tools offered by Google.
Google’s SITE: search allows you to search just one website for specific terms. This can be useful when a site’s own search form is disappointing or missing altogether.
There are two ways to access this tool: via Google’s advanced search form or directly from Chrome’s address/search bar. Back in 2011 Shaunna Mireau gave us a detailed explanation on how to use the advanced search form. More recently, in 2013, Dan Pinnington showed us how to use this tool directly from Chrome’s address bar.
I prefer to use the SITE: search directly from Chrome’s address bar. To do this, follow these three steps:
- In Chrome, navigate to the website you want to search. In my example, we’ll use Transport Canada’s website (https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/menu.htm).
- In Chrome’s address bar, delete all the characters before and after the root domain. For example, I would edit the full URL (i.e. https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/menu.htm) to be tc.gc.ca.
- Add the phrase site: before your edited text (no spaces!) and enter your search terms after the edited URL (with a space!). Press enter and review your results. For example, my search would look like this:
site:tc.gc.ca “minor works” “navigation protection”
— Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)