Above the Law

Although summonsed isn’t downright wrong, in modern legal usage it’s much preferable to say that someone was summoned to appear in court.

Summons as a verb dates from the 17th century. It has been used to mean (1) “to cite to appear before a court, judge, or magistrate,” or (2) “to request (information) by summons.” The common word from which it is derived (the noun summons) predates this use by four centuries.

The verb summon has always been much more common. Searches of Google Books, Lexis, and Westlaw show that 21st-century legal writers rarely use summonsed. For example, summoned is the only form used in U.S. Supreme Court opinions. And a Westlaw search of writings since 1999 returns only 804 hits for summonsed; in many of these, the term appeared in a quotation. A general Google search shows 244,000 hits for summonsed but over 28.4 million hits for summoned. (Of course, that 28.4 million also includes all instances in which summoned is used in nonlegal contexts.) Google Books returns 25,000 hits for summonsed spanning several centuries, but about 70% of those are from nonlegal texts.

Summonsed grates on the ears of many respected legal writers. One of the greatest, Glanville Williams, denounced it this way: “The horrible expression ‘summonsed for an offence’ (turning the noun ‘summons’ into a verb) has now become accepted usage, but ‘summoned’ remains not only allowable but preferable.” Learning the Law 15 n.28 (11th ed. 1982).

That’s still true today. Let’s summon up the courage to call summons, as a verb, a needless variant of summon.

Further reading:

Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 864-65 (3d ed. 2011).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 1251 (11th ed. 2011).
Black’s Law Dictionary 1574 (9th ed. 2009; 10th ed. forthcoming).
“summons, v.”. OED Online. March 2014. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/194011?rskey=Hm7bl9&result=2&isAdvanced=false (accessed April 10, 2014).

Thanks to John N. Love for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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