Reflections on Language From Confinement

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)


  1. Thanks Neil. As usual, your tip made me smile.

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