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All Our Research Tips

An assortment of things to avoid.

At its most basic

Something can’t be more or less basic; once you’re at the base, that’s far as you can go.

Chomping at the bit

Purists often say that really should be champing (and they’re not wrong). But champ and chomp mean the same thing: to chew vigorously, to munch, to bite at something hard like a horse’s bit.

Chomp is the US variant, champ the English (in the UK chomp is regarded as ‘dialectical’, which is code for non-standard or déclassé) – so take your pick.

Avoid the phrase in any event; it’s a cliché.

Conflicted

To conflict is to be incompatible, at variance, with someone or something else.

Lawyers must avoid situations that involve conflicting interests, but should also avoid the lazy short-hand of conflicted when they mean in a conflict of interest.

Fulsome

We’ve covered this one before, but it bears repeating. Fulsome properly means ‘servilely flattering’ (The guest speaker was visibly embarrassed by her host’s fulsome introduction), not ‘full, complete, detailed, ample’.

That Securities Act disclosure was not likely therefore to have been fulsome.

As pointed out before, however, insisting on the correct meaning appears to be yet another losing battle: a writer in the Financial Times wrote about Picasso’s ‘gloriously well-rounded and fulsome life’ (20 March 2018), while someone in the Globe and Mail referred to ‘a fulsome garbage bag’ (16 August 2018).

Shouldn’t newspaper editors know better?

Straightjacket

No, it’s a straitjacket – although you’re in good company if you get this wrong. See Cavendish Square Holding BV v El Makdessi, [2015] UKSC 67 at para 225, where Lord Hodge refers to ‘the straightjacket into which the law risked being placed by an over-rigorous emphasis on a dichotomy between a genuine pre-estimate of damages on the one hand and a penalty on the other.’ (A regrettably large number of other instances may be found through quick searches of CanLII and BaiLII.)

Strait means ‘narrow or tight’; by extension, it’s how we describe a narrow waterway (the Straits of Georgia), tight or straitened circumstances (which may even be dire straits) or that restraining garment from which Lord Hodge draws his metaphor. Not straight (‘direct’).

A ways to go

Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said at one point that negotiations for the nuclear disarmament of North Korea had a long ways to go. In colloquial, US English, this is a normal thing to say (if something of a understatement in reference to progress with Pyongyang).

In correct written English, use the singular way.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Blacklining (or sometimes redlining)

In the olden days, a pair of articled clerks would sit together with two versions of a document. One would read aloud the new version and the other would mark the changes on the old, striking through deletions and writing in additions then underlining them. A red pen was typically used, hence redlining. With the advent of the monochrome photocopier, this became blacklining.

How quaint! But not so far into the mists of antiquity. We now have software that does all this with a few keystrokes, and very effective it is too. It also eliminates the human error attributable to sleepy, hungover students.

Just make sure you save the marked-up version as a new document, so you preserve the record of the document comparison.

Workshare Compare seems to be the market leader, but there are other products.

BriefCatch and ContractCatch

These are products from US legal writing expert Ross Guberman.

The first is intended for written advocacy, and will give a score out of a hundred for:

  • reading happiness (use of active voice, word and paragraph length and the like)
  • sentence length (including excessive length, variation in length)
  • flow (use of effective transitions and other sign-posts)
  • punchiness (verbiage-catcher)
  • plain English

Guberman has also used BriefCatch to assess the quality of judicial decisions, particularly those from SCOTUS.

ContractCatch will spot potentially ambiguous wording, inconsistent terminology, grammar and spelling errors, plain English issues.

Both tools suggest edits, which can be accepted or rejected.

Contract Companion

A neat product that whizzes through a document (not necessarily a contract) and locates problems like capitalised defined terms that lack actual definitions, unpaired quotation marks, spacing variations and inconsistent numbering of sections and paragraphs.

Fiddly stuff that the human eye may well miss, in other words.

Users say the software does come up with some false positives, but it finds a lot that human review will overlook.

Track Changes

This comes with Microsoft Word, and some people love it. I don’t.

Track Changes does offer the ability to make marginal comments as well as revisions to the text, but also requires the reviewer of the document to accept or reject the previous editor’s comments and edits.

That process is annoying – or I think so, anyway. And any subsequent changes, even if those don’t involve input from another person, result in a marked-up document.

You also have to be very sure you have cleaned all the metadata from your document when you send it to someone external; otherwise, the recipient will see all those marginalia saying things like ‘Not sure this is a good argument but let’s try it anyway!’

 

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

As a result of popular culture (as much as anything else), most people are now aware of the meaning of trans (or transgender).

It refers to someone who was assigned a gender at birth but who later takes steps to affirm another gender that more closely aligns with their true identity.

The trans part is derived from Latin and means ‘across’ or ‘on the other side’. We see it in words that involve crossing boundaries, barriers and other things: transatlantic, transgression, transition, translation

A bit less familiar is the expression cis, now used to refer to people who were assigned a gender at birth that they remain OK with. For example: Cis white men make up the majority of partners at law firms.

Cis is the Latin opposite of trans, and means ‘this side of’.

So Cisalpine Gaul was the part of the province on the Roman side of the Alps; to get to Transalpine Gaul, the Romans had to cross the mountains. (The Gauls would have seen things differently, of course).

In the early twentieth century, Cisjordan and Transjordan were used to describe the territories on either side of the River Jordan. The former is now more usually called the West Bank, although the French still refer to it as Cisjordanie. The early twentieth-century Emirate of Transjordan became the modern Kingdom of Jordan.

Those who really know their history will recognise Cisleithania as a name for the non-Hungarian parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Leitha being a small tributary of the Danube that marks the historical border between the Archduchy of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary.

Note that in all the geographic senses, the definition of what is on this side and what is across the way is determined by the perspective of the more powerful group.

I suspect trans people might say the same thing.

 

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Oh, words. So useful, but so easily confused.

Back story/background

Recently overheard in the hallway: That’s the back story to the file.

Well, not quite. A back story is the fabricated biography that a spy is given as a cover, especially for the purposes of a future interrogation by someone hostile.

What the person in the hallway meant was just background – although perhaps back story sounds more exciting.

Cue/queue

A recent request that crossed the screen: Can you queue up a meeting?

While you queue up for tickets (or, more usually, in North America, line up), timing a meeting is to cue it up.

Think of an actor’s cue to do something at a particular point in the script.

Hesitant/reluctant/reticent

These are close in meaning, so any confusion is perhaps to be forgiven.

To be reticent is to be unwilling to speak freely.

Reluctant is a bit broader: it is to be unwilling to do something in general.

Hesitant is like reluctant, but suggests the person may get over that momentary unwillingness.

While someone who is reticent is also reluctant, the reverse is not (necessarily) true.

So don’t say I am reticent to participate in the meeting.

Incredible/incredulous

People still get these confused? They do!

Like CNN, which stated that ‘The President’s claims of innocence looked even more incredulous Tuesday night after The New York Times reported …’

What they meant was incredible – that is, ‘hard to believe’ or ‘fantastical’. (Incredible has also joined the list of words that have come to mean ‘superlative’ but which started off meaning something else, like awesome, fantastic, terrific, tremendous and unbelievable.)

Incredulous, on the other hand, is what one says of people when they hear – but do not believe – an incredible story (in the ‘not capable of belief’ sense).

 

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Exhibit A, posted on LinkedIn by a copywriter and editor:

My husband, John Blank and I are relocating to Canada in April.

Without a comma after John Blank (the name has been changed to protect the guilty by association), this means the writer is moving with an unnamed husband and this other dude, John Blank.

What is probably meant is that our copywriter is moving with one husband, whose name is (for our purposes) John Blank, and him alone.

There needs to be a comma after the husband’s name to indicate that we’re not dealing with a throuple (unless that is the case).

Exhibit B, from no less a source than the Financial Times:

The writer, Jose Luis Borges, once likened …

This is the opposite problem; those limiting commas offsetting the name of the writer indicate that he is the only writer.

The following sentences, while perhaps intially confusing, are punctuationally pure (remembering that smith is both a noun and a verb):

Will smith Will Smith smith?

              Smith Will Smith will smith.

The FT should dispense with the Borges commas and adopt the Will Smith approach, unless it seeks to reduce world literature to a single author.

Maybe they were using the copywriter/editor from LinkedIn…

 

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Noting up legislation is straightforward. On CanLII you enter the name or citation of the act in the note up field; in Lexis Advance you enter the citation of the section you are interested in preceded by cit: (e.g. cit: SBC 2011 c 25 s 160) and in Westlaw Canada you enter the citation of the section you are interested in preceded by kc: (e.g. kc: SBC 2011 c 25 s 160).

However if you note up only the current version of the legislation you may miss out on some older but still relevant cases.

In order to note up the equivalent section in an older act you will need to know what the correct citation is. Section numbers change from consolidation to consolidation since acts are renumbered when a revised consolidation is produced. Section 27 of the R.S.C. 1985 version of an act may not refer to the same thing as section 27 of the R.S.C. 1970 version of that act. How you determine the correct section number depends somewhat on the jurisdiction of the legislation.

Keep in mind that the section of an act referred to by an older case may read dramatically differently from how it does now. If you find an older case that appears to be relevant, you should confirm how the legislation read at that time.

Susannah Tredwell

 

This phrase, beloved of vendors of products and services you probably don’t want and with whom you are unacquainted, is puzzling.

What do they mean?

The first possibility is that the sender hopes (or pretends, for the sake of fake-friendliness) that when the e-mail finds me, I am well.

That is, healthy, in a state of contentment etc.

That interpretation is unlikely not only because it presupposes the sincerity of the wish, but also because I am 99.999% sure that the sender would use good (not the grammatically correct well) in response to the question ‘How are you?’

The only other possibility is that the sender is hoping that the e-mail finds me well in the sense of its having travelled ’directly’ or ‘without difficulty’ to me through the ether.

Now that we’ve entered the third decade of e-mail’s widespread use as a communications tool, it is wholly unnecessary to be asking that very 1990s question, ‘Did you get my e-mail?’

Oh, it found me all right (and I wish it hadn’t). If it hadn’t, you’d have received a bounce-back.

Since the possible meanings of I hope this e-mail finds you well are either unlikely or inane, can we please consign this leaden opener to the dustbin of sales clichés?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Translation: ‘too long; didn’t read’.

This is the verdict, Aaron Orendorff argues, on most work-related writing.

Orendorff, a writer and editor, suggested a while back in the New York Times that your work colleagues really don’t want to read anything you write in a professional setting.

It’s not that they don’t like you or that you write badly; it’s just that they (like you) are inundated with reading material.

He offers eight strategies to get people to read what you send them (because some of it actually might be important):

  • Write less often
    • scarcity is more valuable
    • keep personal conversations separate from professional channels
    • wait before you send or reply, sometimes up to 24 hours – or don’t send at all
  • keep it short
    • brevity is the soul of wit (Shakespeare’s joke being that it is the tedious old bore Polonius who says that in Hamlet)
  • put action words in the subject line of your e-mail
    • not ‘Budget attached’ but ‘APPROVAL REQUIRED FOR ITEMS 9-12: Budget attached’
  • listen rather than talk
    • ask a clear, concise question that invite answers
  • ask, don’t answer
    • ‘use one or two sentences to describe the situation; then ask a single question and let the team chime in’
  • ‘lead with the need’
    • skip opening niceties and cut to the chase
    • move the final sentence of your first draft to the top and then cut most of the rest
  • provide an executive summary
    • call it ‘TL;DR’, even
    • especially useful for memos, agendas and group e-mails
    • say who needs to do what by what date
    • if this covers everything, omit the rest of the draft
  • think of your readers
    • is what you’re writing interesting or relevant for them?
    • include your reader by referring to we not I or even you
    • asking for someone’s opinion invites criticism; try to build on a shared identity

These eight points won’t make people hang on every e-mail you compose, but you may at least get their attention.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Problematic because they are newfangled and ugly.

Error

Seen in a recent lawyer blog post: The court errored when …

Nope. It erred or made an error.

To paraphrase the poet, to err is human; to error is unforgivable.

Skill

We correctly refer to the skilled trades, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to turn skill into a verb.

Even worse are those jargony hybrids, reskill and upskill, and their derivatives reskilling and upskilling. (Can one ever downskill?)

You mean training, learning, acquiring new skills.

Vision

Typically a noun, but halfway to a verb in the dreadful visioning that people seem to be doing in (probably equally dreadful) team-building exercises.

One envisions, one sees.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

If you’re trying to find an Alberta government publication one very helpful resource is Alberta’s open government portal. This is “a collection of datasets and publications by government departments and agencies.” Currently it contains 24,503 Government of Alberta publications.

To search for a publication go to https://open.alberta.ca/publications; you can limit your results by topic, ministry and publication type. It also includes tags which can be helpful in locating similar publications.

Susannah Tredwell