English Grammar and Usage

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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When I moved last year from Chicago to London, my morning workout changed along with my postal code: Instead of lifting weights and jogging on alternate days, I now jog every morning, plodding through my lap around Regent’s Park. Either the new exercise regime or my appetite for British food has affected me: Although I hadn’t realized it, I’ve lost a fair amount of weight this past year. (I started at only 5’10″ and maybe 175 lbs; losing 20 pounds wasn’t necessarily a good thing.)

Here’s what I noticed when my wife and I recently visited Chicago: When you’re in your twenties and lose weight, your friends say, “Hey, Mark! You’re looking good!” When you’re in your fifties and lose weight, your friends whisper to your wife: “Pssst: Is Mark okay?”

Anyway, our son, Jeremy (you remember him), recently survived his medical school boards and visited us in London for a while. He joined me for a few of my morning jaunts. I sprinted; he jogged. We both went the same pace.

All of this prompted me to reflect on the differences between the States and the Kingdom. I’ve previously noted that the United States cleans the UK’s clock in a couple of areas, such as dryer and traffic-light technology. But the reverse is also true: The Kingdom beats the States in a couple of noteworthy ways….

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What would you call this man?

My mother is a speech pathologist, which is why I don’t have the sexy Lawn Gisland accent that was my birthright. If you’ve ever seen me on T.V., you know that I have a fairly vanilla Northeastern United States accent. I don’t think of my accent as particularly regionalized. I don’t sound like I’m from “Brooklyn” or “Jersey,” and I certainly don’t sound like one of those unintelligible souls who was tragically bitten by the letter “R” while growing up in Greater Boston.

You don’t really think of your accent as regionalized until you get out of your region (which I try never to do because, Jesus, I’m not the freaking Curiosity rover). Or until you look at the linguistic maps that are sweeping the nation. The maps showing how people talk differently. Different places have some words I didn’t even know existed, and I use words professionally for a living.

They also have funny pronunciations of words. Apparently, all of us say “lawyer” the same way, except for you weird Southerners who don’t…

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The Scripps National Spelling Bee took place this week. I find that contest to be a cruel torture for young people who don’t need the pressure or exposure of being forced to fail in front of a national audience. Also, I don’t like watching little kids who can perform tasks I can only dream about.

But, in honor of the Spelling Bee, we’ve decided to have our own Above the Law spelling contest. How do you have a spelling contest on a blog without audio, you ask? Well, have you ever seen me try to spell without spell check?

Here’s how it’s going to work: I’m going to give you a little vignette during which I murder some legalese, and you’re going to tell me what I meant. No cheating…

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If it is Urban Dictionary or hire some linguistic expert to do a survey, it seems like a pretty cheap, pretty good alternative for the court.

Greg Lastowka, an intellectual property professor at Rutgers Law-Camden, suggesting that the trend of using Urban Dictionary as a tool in litigation may accelerate due to the site’s relative ease of use.

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