English Grammar and Usage

Bryan A. Garner

This May, Thomson Reuters published the tenth edition of the estimable Black’s Law Dictionary (affiliate link). The most widely cited legal book in the world, Black’s is a must-have for every lawyer and law student.

Henry Campbell Black published the first edition in 1891. Starting with the publication of the seventh edition in 1995, Black’s has been edited by Professor Bryan A. Garner, the noted lexicographer, legal-writing expert, and author of such books as Garner’s Modern American Usage, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (the last two co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia (affiliate links)).

I met with Garner during his recent visit to New York, where he taught his famous legal-writing course to various law firms and government employers. His voice was hoarse from a summer cold, but he generously soldiered through an interview with the help of some tea. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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‘Would you like fries with that, Your Honor?’

* With OT 2013 drawing to a close, here’s a nifty chart that shows which Supreme Court justices vote together most and least often. The division is real, people. [The Upshot / New York Times]

* “Not only do they have unique interpretations of the Constitution but they can’t even agree on how to pronounce words.” Listen to our SCOTUS justices flub the word “certiorari.” [Legal Times]

* Quinn Emanuel and Samsung must now pay more than $2M in sanctions to Nokia and Apple after leaking confidential, “attorneys’ eyes only” information in a discovery blunder. Oopsie! [Legal Week]

* “Why can’t you get a real job?” This judge — the same one who sentenced a rapist to just 30 days in prison — told a fast-food worker to get a better job to pay off his restitution more quickly. [Billings Gazette]

* If you think you’ve seen the best of the “Law and ______” classes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Say hello to some newcomers, like Video Game Law and Law of Robots. Justice Scalia is pissed. [WSJ Law Blog]

Sarah Jones

* Judges with daughters are seven percent more likely to support women’s rights than judges with only sons. Alas, Justices Scalia and Alito are impervious to human emotion. [New York Times]

* If you thought Supreme Court justices were “profoundly divided” over issues of law, wait until you see how they differ over the pronunciation of the word “certiorari.” [National Law Journal]

* This year’s summer associate programs sound pretty lame compared to the past: “The emphasis is certainly more on the work than it is on the social events.” All work and no play makes Jack an employed boy at graduation. [Boston Business Journal]

* “I saved the internet today. Your freedom continues.” Fair assessment. Sarah Jones’s win in her defamation case against Nik Richie and TheDirty.com was overturned by the Sixth Circuit. [Courier-Journal]

* If you’re choosing to go against the president’s wishes and apply to law school, here’s how you can leverage your major on all of your applications. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

* This cowgirl is putting aside her rodeo accomplishments to go to law school. At least she’ll have the experience needed to ride the bucking bronco of the post-recession job market. [Casper Star-Tribune]

At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.

It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”

“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”

At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.

Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”

If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?

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Have you ever made a typo? Have you ever misspelled something in a written document? Have you ever made a factual error? Chances are, if you are white and you made a mistake, the person reading it didn’t notice. Or if they noticed, they made an excuse for you. Don’t worry white folks, minor clerical errors won’t detract from your overall appearance of intelligence and competence.

But if you’re black, prepare to feel like an idiot. A new study shows that when law firm partners read identical memos, the partners who believed the author was white were much more forgiving than the partners who thought the author was black.

Hang on, I need to email this study to David Lat, Bryan Garner, my mom, Matt Levine, and Partner Emeritus, from my fake, white-person, @post.harvard.edu account, so they take it seriously….

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I’m about to be a bit of a hypocrite. I’m going to laugh at someone for making a typo, even though I make typos all the time and basically need to hire a live-in copy editor.

But it’s okay. Under the Cooley corollary, you can laugh at everything that comes out of Thomas M. Cooley Law School without being forced to examine your own motives….

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It’s been well documented in these pages that male lawyers in Texas are a little rough around the edges, and many of them seem virtually incapable of getting along with their female counterparts. To that end, some of them have threatened to enlarge opposing counsels’ assholes, and others have used terms of endearment like “c*nt,” “flat-chested bitch,” and “dumb sh*t” when referring to women colleagues.

With that as a backdrop, it’s no wonder that even more colorful allegations are coming out as a result of a small-firm breakup in Texas. Sure, the defendant in this case may have allegedly “emptied” the firm’s bank account before she left for her new firm, but perhaps she had a good reason to do so.

You’d probably want to take the money and run too if your partner was allegedly sexually harassing female employees and “requesting sex for favorable treatment” within the firm….

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Welcome to Above the Law’s newest feature, Fun With Fine Print. This occasional column will chronicle especially clever or awful examples of legalese, fine print, disclaimers, disclosures, and the like. Our readers who spend so much time toiling over contractual language, drafting it beforehand or litigating it after the fact, will hopefully appreciate — and contribute to — this feature.

We’ll start things off with an example of infamous fine print. Earlier this year, Subway got torpedoed over its regrettable response to a customer complaint. After Australian teenager Matt Corby complained that his “footlong” Subway sub was a mere eleven inches, Subway invoked the following fine print: “With regards to the size of the bread and calling it a footlong, ‘SUBWAY FOOTLONG’ is a registered trademark as a descriptive name for the sub sold in Subway® Restaurants and not intended to be a measurement of length.” Personally speaking, I think eleven inches is more than enough — but based on the uproar and litigation, maybe I’m in the minority.

Now let’s look at legalese worth celebrating, for its cleverness and its clarity. It also comes from a fast-food provider….

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My second story about editing in two days? Woohoo! Nothing is more exciting.

I hope people don’t get the wrong idea about my feelings when it comes to typos and grammatical errors. They should be avoided. I’m just saying there’s no reason to get all bent out of shape over them. There are thousands of opportunities to make a small error in typing or applying the arbitrary rules of the English language, and when an error happens, it should be noted and fixed with minimal drama. Instead there are people like this. Or this.

But if you’re going to rip a bunch of people for poor editing, at least try to keep typos and grammatical screw-ups in your email to a minimum.

Unlike this law journal editor….

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Look, typos happen. No matter how vigilant a proofer is, a typo will eventually slip through. Anyone can type “they it is” or “raceism” once in awhile.[1] As long as the meaning is still clear, there’s not a reason to harp on the person unless you’re just a petty person desperate to use another person’s misplacement of a letter as an affirmation of your life.

So I don’t want to lay scorn on the lawyer or paralegal or court clerk who committed this error. But when a typo in the very title of the filing creates a slur, it’s snicker-worthy.

Here’s a filing that opposes summary judgment “on all the c**ts” of the complaint….

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