advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

technology  research  practice

All Our Research Tips

While LEGISinfo is an excellent tool for tracking federal legislation, it does not get updated the moment that there is a change to a bill. But sometimes you need to have the information on the status of a bill as fast as is humanly possible.

The House of Commons In the Chamber (@HoCChamber) Twitter account provides “regular updates about proceedings of the House of Commons Chamber.” (The French equivalent can be found at https://twitter.com/CdcChambre.) The account is updated as events happen which makes it a very useful tool for tracking a bill listed on that day’s agenda.
Sample tweet showing information about a bill
The Senate equivalent is https://twitter.com/SenateCA (English) or https://twitter.com/SenatCA (French).

Susannah Tredwell

 

We haven’t done these for a while, so here goes.

Classic/classical

Over time, these have been used interchangeably to some extent, but they are now best kept separate – and more or less as follows.

Classic refers to something of recognised quality and enduring value: Mozart’s four greatest operas are classics of the repertoire.

It can also mean something like ‘typical’ or ‘characteristic’: The politician’s answer was a classic example of evasion and obfuscation.

Classical is generally used in relation to ancient Greece and Rome: Classical mythology is filled with tales of rape, incest and murder.

Or to music of the kind played by a symphony orchestra (in particular, material from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth): Mozart is among the greatest of the classical composers.

Homage/hommage

Homage (pronounced HOM-idge) is what mediaeval knights swore to their lords. Prince Philip paid it to his wife at her coronation in 1953.

Hommage, which is French (pron. o-mahzh), is a rather pretentious way in English to express indebtedness or non-feudal tribute: The director’s recent movie is an hommage to the film noir classics of the 1930s and 40s.

Don’t confuse the two (or their pronunciations).

Indisputable/undisputed

The first means ‘incontrovertible’, ‘not capable of being disputed’: The attribution of this painting to Picasso is indisputable; it is signed and dated, there is film footage of Picasso painting it and its subsequent history is impeccably documented.

The second means just that something hasn’t been contested, although perhaps it could be: The election results are undisputed so far, but that may change if allegations of ballot-tampering come to light.

Ravage/ravish

Not a common pair, but I’ve seen them confused.

To ravage is to cause destruction: The Amazonian rainforest has been ravaged by fires, clear-cutting and bull-dozers.

Ravish, on the other hand, originally meant to seize and carry away a person, usually a woman or young man, and often with sexual intent.

And since we’re on the subject, rape was also originally just the act of seizing and carrying off, with what probably followed being inferred. The related word raptor is a bird (or, apparently thanks to a 1990 book by Michael Crichton, a dinosaur) that snatches its prey; but another obsolete meaning is rapist, which the owners of a professional basketball team in Toronto may not have known.

But back to ravish, which can also mean to transport a person in a figurative and non-sexual/non-aggressive sense, frequently as a result of ecstasy or delight: She lost herself in the ravishing melodies of Mozart’s opera.

Straits/straights

One is in straitened circumstances or dire straits if things are going badly. If things are going really badly, you might be put in a strait jacket.

These expressions derive from strait, meaning ‘tight’, ‘narrow’ or ‘confined’.

Hence also strait in the maritime sense, used to describe a narrow and perhaps difficult passage between land masses: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Strait of Georgia (although the Vancouver newspaper is The Georgia Straight, presumably because it conveys the straight goods to people on either side of the strait).

It used to be that one was on (or off) the strait and narrow, but this is now spelled straight and narrow.

Straight as an adjective is straightforward; and even if your circumstances are straitened, you can straighten something that is at an angle.

Straight, in common parlance, refers to a non-LGBTQ2S person.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

A law professor and political candidate tweeted this:

Last night we gathered with a group of Liberal supporters who, like I, care about combatting climate change …

And here I was thinking that only Lorelei Lee, the uneducated but aspirational showgirl in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), referred to a girl like I.

No naming and shaming of the law prof in question (although you can identify her using the quotation from her tweet as a search phrase).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

This is becoming more common in regulatory law in Canada, but it’s unnecessary.

It’s fairly old – OED gives citations going back to the mid nineteenth century. The word is listed there as an Americanism.

The Law Society of Ontario has begun to use it: ‘Licensure is the official recognition by the Law Society that a candidate has met all the qualifications specified by the Law Society and is, therefore, approved to practice as a lawyer in Ontario.’

The more usual licensing (which the LSO also uses) would do perfectly well. (And I’d prefer to see practise for the verb, practice for the noun.)

I wonder if licensure was coined to make the process of getting a licence to do something sound fancier and somehow more legalistic.

As lawyers, we should try to get away from words and phrases that our non-lawyer readers (and listeners) wouldn’t normally use, much less understand – especially when there is a non-lawyer way of saying things that they’ll actually get.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

Standards, which “establish accepted practices, technical requirements, and terminologies”, are often referenced by acts and regulations; in order to be able to properly interpret a piece of legislation you may need to see the standard it is referring to.

Frequently the fastest and most efficient solution (if not the cheapest) is to buy the standard, either in print or electronic format. However, if you’re buying a digital version it is important to be aware of how the standard is licenced, e.g. in some cases the person who bought the standard is the only person who can use it. For Canadian standards, the Standards Council of Canada (confusingly — for law librarians at least — abbreviated SCC) is a useful place to start.

Standards are frequently referred to by a number (e.g. “CSA Z1008:21”) where the first letters indicate who issued the standard (in this case the Canadian Standards Association), the middle numbers indicate the number of the standard, and the last number indicates the year of issue (i.e. 2021). Standards are frequently revised or replaced, so it is important to know which particular version of a standard you are looking for. Older standards can be more challenging to find.

Your local public library may own some standards in print format so it is worthwhile checking with them.

A number of Canadian standards are available for free; for example you can find the online collection of Codes Canada publications (including the National Building Code of Canada 2020, the National Plumbing Code of Canada 2020 and the National Fire Code of Canada 2020) at https://nrc-publications.canada.ca/eng/search/?q=NRCCode. Similarly the British Columbia Codes 2018 are available online at https://www.bccodes.ca/index.html.

Susannah Tredwell

 

We have borrowed a lot from French and also given a lot to it. Sometimes, however, we each get things a bit wrong (see Guthrie’s Guide for more on this).

By way of further example: moral/morale and rational/rationale.

Moral(e)

Morale entered the English language at the time of the First World War, when it was first used to describe the collective state of mind of the troops.

It seemed like a borrowing from French, and the final –e signalled a Gallic pronunciation with the emphasis on the second syllable.

This posed a problem for pedants, who pointed out that the equivalent noun wouldn’t have a final e in French. And in French la morale with a final E means what we would call morals.

As is often the case, people ignored the language nerds, with the result that in English morale is usefully distinguishable from moral.

Don’t confuse them.

Rational(e)

I’ve seen these mixed up recently, which surprised me.

Rational (adjective) means ‘reasonable’ or ‘logical’; rationale (noun) is the underlying reasoning for something.

We get rationale (like locale) from French (and without the misapprehension we’ve seen with morale).

Trooper/trouper

If you see someone described as a real trooper, it’s probably meant as a compliment – but it’s also probably a terminological error.

A trooper is a soldier, probably enlisted rather than an officer, in a troop. Trooper is an actual rank in some Commonwealth regiments, at the bottom of the hierarchy.

When you are saying someone is a team-player who really goes the distance, it’s trouper you mean – that is, the member of a theatrical troupe who steps in at the last minute to save the show when somebody else is ill or who takes on a horrible role without complaint.

Vary, very

I’ve yet to see something like vary good – but I have come across to very when the meaning is intended to be to ‘alter’ or ‘amend’.

Vary is correct there, obvi.

Could be a typo, but long and sad experience suggests otherwise.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

In a recent e-mail, someone wrote What am I suppose to do?

That should be supposed, obviously – but was it a typo or a more serious error?

It could just be a typo, or else one of those spellings based on oral information only.

In colloquial speech, the final –d can sometimes drop off. (Dad said you’re not s’pose to do that!)

It clearly needs the past-tense ending, though. One is assumed, presumed, supposed or thought to do or have done something.

Similar is used, as in We used to rent videos but now just watch Netflix. The final D in used may also get lost in speech.

But use in that context could actually be correct. To use to do something, meaning to be in the habit of doing, is well-established usage. Archaic, though:

‘In that Season of the Year when the Water uses to be lowest’ (1726)

‘All delights which use to crown princely banquetings’ (1819)

Interestingly, this is still current in Caribbean English:

‘How she uses to dress’ (Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago (2009, citing 1959)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

 

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)