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All Our Research Tips

Commence
This word is unavoidable as a technical term in litigation: one commences an action under the Courts of Justice Act, RSO 1990, c C43, for example.

But don’t use the word in normal parlance or non-technical writing, where it sounds fussy and pompous.

She didn’t commence employment on whatever date; she started work.

While we’re on the subject, the academic term commencement for a graduation ceremony (so, the conclusion rather than beginning of one’s course of study) has always seemed strange to me – perhaps because it’s a Cambridge term, and more recently an American one. But it’s old, going back at least as far as 1387. I guess it’s like Cambridge colleges holding May balls in June.

Thusly
Oh Lord, no!

While there are some mid-Victorian colloquial examples of thusly, the correct adverb is thus – and, frankly, that has no place in modern legal writing either.

Unto
If you are still using –eth as a verb ending, unto might be OK.

There is no reason to be using it in modern English, however.

We herein provide you with an update on the status of …
These opening words from an actual e-mail are a waste of everyone’s time.

Just say what the status is: We closed the transaction, The court dismissed the appeal, whatever it is.

The preamble is just meaningless filler with a phoney air of gravitas.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Readers send me examples of bad things. I shudder and pass them on, so you will never commit the same grievous faults.

Arms length
You keep something or someone at arm’s length in order to ensure independence or impartiality. Note that apostrophe (and its placement; arms’ length is justifiable but not preferred).

If you want to turn the phrase into an adjective, you’ll need to add a hyphen (even if you think that looks a bit over-punctuated): an arm’s-length transaction.

A French-Canadian boss of mine always pronounced it harm’s length, which had a certain unintended logic to it.

The instant case
This would have been normal, current English in the late eighteenth century, but it has no place in your present-day factum or pleadings.

Say this case (and NOT the case at bar, which always makes me think of cocktails).

Interface
Bad enough as a noun, worse as a verb.

The noun just means something like connectioncontact or common ground; the verb (especially as used outside the IT context) is a silly way of dressing up old-fashioned words like meet or talk.

Whereupon
Recently seen, as though we still drafted documents with quill pens by candlelight.

Archaic compounds like whereupon can always be expressed in clear, modern language that won’t make you look like a pompous old fogey.

Replace this one with something like at whichon which or just plain then. Your readers will be grateful.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

All of these seen recently.

Action plan
I suppose there could be a plan to do nothing (an inaction plan?), but generally plan implies taking action — so the first element inaction plan is redundant.

Betwixt and between
They mean the same thing.

Yes, the phrase is used idiomatically to mean ‘at a loss’ or ‘unable to choose between alternatives’, but it has no place in legal drafting.

Just between in your contracts.

Relationship
A thoughtful reader points out that the –ship bit adds nothing.

Compare trusteeship or fellowship, where the suffix actually changes the meaning of the other part (turning person into thing).

In the realm of dating and marriage, relationship is now too entrenched to be dislodged; but you could usefully use relation (orrelations) in your legal writing and drafting to describe the interrelatedness of parties or concepts.

Tier levels
The actual phrase used by an American professional development manager was skill sets for tier levels of associates. Insert Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ emoji.

There’s a lot of redundancy going on there: just skills would work (and sometimes those come singly, not in groups); and either tiersor levels, but not both.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

One of CANLII’s lesser known resources is its Foreign reported decisions database which “includes some decisions issued by foreign courts and tribunals and that are of special interest for Canadian law.”

For example, should you be interested in Browne v. Dunn (1893), 6 R. 67 (a decision sufficiently challenging to find online that someone created a dedicated website for it) you can find it on CanLII.

While the collection of foreign decisions is not large, CanLII will on request add cases that are of interest to Canadian legal practitioners.

(And for all your regular British case law needs, there is always BAILII.)

Susannah Tredwell

 

These aren’t always confined to lawyers; they permeate the e-mail and speech of law clerks, legal assistants and students.

Advised
The phrase Please be advised that … has to be one of the most leaden openings of all time. Cut to the chase and just convey the actual information, without the pointless preamble.

And advise in this context is, well, ill-advised. On stylistic grounds, for one. It’s pompous to say Please advise me if … when you could just say Please tell me if … or Let me know if ...

It’s also not a great idea to extend your use of the words advice and advise beyond that which is legal advice in the strict sense.

Attend
Oft-seen in emails from harried assistants: We urgently need a student to attend at the client’s office to …

Go to would be much more effective in putting a fire under the articling students.

Do dockets still read attendance to [whatever activity]? Probably time to modernise the accounting software.

Dictated but not read by …
We don’t send letters the way we used to, but new software has revitalised the practice of dictation.

As a result, the old dictated/not read formulation is still seen on correspondence – both digital and printed.

It was never good: it conveys a message of ‘I’m too busy (or, more to the point, disorganised) to take proper care’.

One research lawyer in Toronto once jokingly used the phrase to describe a loose-leaf text of inconsistent quality, ostensibly by a senior partner at another firm but largely the work of successive generations of articling students.

In any circumstance, don’t write (or practise) this way. Consider, check, proofread, revise. (And write your own material.)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

We’ve had lots on bad business jargon in this space, but other fields of endeavour have also been polluting the language.

Surface
This is from the world of technology, a jargon-generator if ever there was one.

As in This AI solution will surface all the relevant case law.

Please, techies, stop calling every product or service a solution for one thing; but also, stop using the verb surface in this way.

Things surface, but one does not generally surface things. Here, it means nothing more than plain old find.

Just say that.

Transparency
Blame NGOs and civil servants for this one, I think.

It was once a vivid metaphor to describe a refreshing new approach to government (or business, or what have you) that has nothing to hide.

It’s tired now (1,579,993 hits on the Government of Canada website!) – and in this new world of big data, we are all probably sceptical of the claim anyway.

Why not say opennesscandour or even honesty?

But perhaps that is the point: things aren’t hidden, exactly, but do they fall somewhere short of complete disclosure?

Wellness
If my hunch about transparency being almost-but-not-quite-honesty is correct, wellness is definitely along the same lines.

It isn’t the same as health, with which it is often twinned but thereby juxtaposed: see, for example, https://www.studentlife.utoronto.ca/hwc/contact-us

Promoters of wellness may say the concept is meant to seem wider and more holistic than health (holistic being a New Age sort of word from the 1930s that I don’t much like either).

I suspect the underlying rationale is that wellness is often the domain of the unlicensed; and the standard by which it is assessed is more subjective, more nebulous.

And therefore intended to be less susceptible to litigation?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

This was cited in Guthrie’s Guide as an example of bad business jargon, without much additional commentary.

Because of its ubiquity, this dreadful phrase merits a few words.

Ubiquity, for starters. The phrase appears in nearly 5,000 posts on Lexology, which to me suggests one word: hackneyed (and therefore to be avoided).

It’s also unnecessary, as there are perfectly good, plain alternatives: lessons or important points come to mind (but, please, not learnings).

And if you have readers in the UK, you may occasion some scratched heads: a takeaway is a take-out meal or the establishment from whence it came – so your reader in London may be wondering, ‘Does she mean “really important curries”?’

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

This was based on a post on the CALL listserv; many thanks to Michèle LeBlanc of the Université de Moncton for the information.

The Centre de traduction et de terminologie juridiques (CTTJ) at the Université de Moncton has been working on a project to translate important unilingual Canadian court decisions into Canada’s other official language. The project currently focuses primarily on the areas of criminal law and family law.

The translated cases are available here: https://www6.umoncton.ca/cttj/jurisprudence-pancanadienne/ and can be searched by style of cause, file number or jurisdiction. The translations can also be found on CanLII.

Susannah Tredwell

 

Lawyers find it difficult to use one word when they could use two. Here are some further examples.

Forward progress
All progress is forward-looking; that’s why it’s progress.

Null and void
The two elements mean the same thing, so there is no need to use both.

As a drafting point, it’s a dangerous phrase. If doing (or not doing) something renders a contract null and void (or terminated), you may not be able to sue the breaching party because there is no longer any underlying obligation. You are better to say that the non-breaching party is relieved from performance of the contract (but can still sue on it).

Rate of speed
This phrase appears, according to CanLII, in 4,173 Canadian cases and 126 statutory provisions.

Speed is, by definition, the rate at which something moves. So, just speed.

Ten-year anniversary
No, just tenth anniversary.

The anni– bit derives from the Latin annus, which means ‘year’ and also gives us annual.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

In an op-ed piece prompted by the Ontario government’s threatened invocation of the Charter’s ‘notwithstanding’ clause (s 33), Professor Lissa Paul of Brock University mused about the prevalence of similar ‘useless adverbs’ in student writing: ‘”Notwithstanding” and the Transition Word Epidemic’, Globe & Mail, 21 September 2018.

Wise words. The ‘infestation’ of so-called ‘transition words’ in undergraduate essays is also a weakness found in legal writing, which is replete with adverbs ‘feigning the existence of non-existent connections’.

Odds are, if you’re using words like additionally, furthermore, moreover and nevertheless to connect sentences, paragraphs or sections of your piece, you’re labouring to establish a logical or rhetorical connection that may well be absent.

It is more effective to create the connection organically, through the (judicious) repetition of a central concept or term. Think about building your argument rather than hitching disparate elements together with so-called transitional adverbs, which may signal the opposite of what you intend.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)