Your Queries Answered

 Since you asked…

Baffled on Bay Street wonders: What’s with ‘Esquire’? Does it have some special meaning in law?

In mediaeval England, an esquire was one rank above a gentleman and one below a knight; hence the variant ‘squire’ for a trainee knight.

While the precise class of chaps eligible to be an esquire is a matter of intense historical controversy, it seems that you had to be the younger son of a nobleman, the son or grandson of a knight, or an office-holder (possibly including a barrister-at-law). By the 18th century, ‘Esquire’ came to be used as a polite substitute for ‘Mister’ on an envelope (and the older use of  ‘Gent.’ after a name faded away). This usage persists in the UK and more traditional parts of the Commonwealth.

Americans used to use ‘Esquire’ in the same way, but by about (your humble scribe is guessing here) the 1940s, it was replaced by just plain ‘Mister’ on envelopes, except in diplomatic and legal circles (conservative, those). By about the 1970s, only lawyers were using it. As a result, ‘Esquire’ came to be viewed as synonymous with ‘attorney’ – and second-wave feminists who entered the legal profession wanted to be able to use it, like their male peers. To someone in the UK today, however, ‘Susan Jones, Esq.’ looks as bizarre as ‘Ms Neil Guthrie’ would.

Confused in Calgary writes: Can I begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’?

Contrary to what Mrs Snelgrove told you in grade 7, yes. But do it sparingly, for effect.

You can also start a sentence with ‘Because’, in constructions like this: ‘Because I forgot to set my alarm, I was late for the client meeting at 8.30.’

Exasperated in Edmonton enquires: How many spaces after the period at the end of a sentence? One or two?

Exasperated, you’ve got time on your hands if you’re fussing about this!

In the days of the Smith-Corona manual typewriter, two spaces were de rigueur. In the digital age, one seems to be the norm.

Troubled in Toronto asks: What’s the difference between ‘farther’ and ‘further’¸ and ‘less’ and ‘fewer’?

Less and fewer are straightforward (although frequently confused). Use less for things you can measure (money, time, substances), fewer for things you can count (people, objects).

Example: There are fewer people around in the summer, so there are fewer cars downtown and less traffic.

NEVER say less people.

The precise difference between farther and further is elusive, and the two words can be (and are) used more or less interchangeably. The consensus among language mavens is that farther is best used for actual distances, further where distance is conceptual or not part of the equation at all.

Examples: Edmonton is farther from Toronto than Calgary BUT Don’t go any further – I’ve had enough of your silliness.

And as for Vexed in Vancouver: I sometimes see in e-mails that that someone is going to ‘revert’ to me. What’s up with this?

This expression appears to have originated in business and legal circles in India in the 1970s, spreading from there to the UK and Australia. It’s a bit weird, because revert normally means to return to an original shape or form (The werewolf reverted to human form once the full moon had passed).

Your humble scribe would avoid the word in business correspondence (unless you mean it in the werewolf sense), and just say reply or answer (get back to you is a bit colloquial, methinks). Revert just seems fancy for the sake of being fancy, which is never desirable.

Next: the importance of editing and proof-reading

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. This is such an interesting post.

    And it’s great, too.

    Because it’s wonderful.


  2. Re “Esquire”: The other class of individuals entitled to refer to themselves and be addressed as “Esquire” was anyone with a university degree. When I was a resident “Junior Fellow” at Massey College in the University of Toronto, which is an all-graduate college, all communications from the college administration were addressed to us as “Esquire” because all of us had a least a Bachelor degree. So anyone with a university degree is an “Esquire”.

    America is supposed to be a classless society. So it is strange that American lawyers seem to have appropriated to themselves exclusive use of the “Esquire” sobriquet. Really, it’s an arrogant, elitist and uninformed misappropriation.

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