English Grammar and Usage

Tom Wallerstein

I was shocked to discover that “[a]ccording to the Lawyer Statistical Report, only 14% of attorneys are employed in large law firms of more than 100 lawyers. The large majority of attorneys (63%) and law firm employees work in small offices of ten attorneys or less.”

I have no idea if those numbers are accurate. But the reason I was shocked is because the report should have said, “ten attorneys or fewer.” “Fewer” is proper when referring to countable items other than time, money or distance. “Less” is proper when referring to things that generally are not counted.

OK, maybe “shocked” is too strong a word, but I do cringe every time I’m in the grocery store confronting the grammatically incorrect express lane of “10 items or less” instead of the proper “ten items or fewer.” Conversely, I always enjoy reading ATL’s “Grammer Pole of the Weak” column that explores some technical grammar debate. I usually have an opinion no matter how arcane the question.

I can trace my own fascination with words to the first time I read George Orwell’s novel 1984 [affiliate link]. Before it became an Apple commercial, the book was a moving exploration of the vast power of language and the relationship between words and ideas. The hero of the novel was employed to edit books and newspapers and remove words that had been banned. The political and social role of “Newspeak,” the state-imposed language, was a central theme.

My fascination with words continued in college where I studied speech. With oration, at its best, your words could glow with the gold of sunshine. At its worst, your tongue is twisted with words half spoken. But I majored in philosophy, and especially the philosophy of language. Law, with its supposed emphasis on logic, language and speech, seemed a natural fit for me.

After all, as lawyers, words are our stock and trade. What is an argument but a collection of ideas, expressed in words, intended to persuade?

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English m*****f***** do you speak it?

How much English do you have to be able to speak in order to hold elected office? I don’t know, but apparently justices in Arizona think they know it when they hear it.

Continuing Arizona’s quest to become the most racist state in the Union, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that prevented Alejandrina Cabrera from running for a city council seat because she doesn’t speak English proficiently.

But we can’t just “blame whitey” for this one. Here we’ve got a Southwestern case of Latino-on-Latino crime.

Well, you know what they say: when in ‘Zona, do as the xenophobes do…

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Prosecutable hate speech in 17th-century Massachusetts included calling people “dogs,” “rogues” and even “queens” (though the last referred to prostitution); magistrates took serious umbrage at being labeled “poopes” (“dolts”).

John McWhorter, the noted linguist, in his New York Times review this past weekend of Speaking American: A History of English in the United States.

(Additional fun facts about language and the law — specifically, facts about statutes criminalizing oral sex — after the jump.)

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we learned that 59% of our readers would never use “their” in the place of “his or her” when referring to a gender-neutral singular noun. After all, using “their” might sound better, but that certainly doesn’t make it the right word choice.

And that brings us to the topic of this week’s Grammer Pole, which came to me while I was listening to Metallica yesterday afternoon. Guys in heavy metal bands know when to use “whom,” so why don’t lawyers? Because sometimes, it just sounds better when you’re wrong….

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that our readers, 81% of them, in fact, couldn’t care less about being polite (who knew?). Grammatically speaking, they don’t think that a single person can be “diverse.” You hear that, law firms? If you’re looking for minority applicants, cut the pleasantries and say so.

This week, we’ll be turning to a question that’s been debated through the ages. We’ve dealt with gender-neutral language in the past, but today we’re turning it up a notch. When using gender-neutral singular nouns, is it acceptable to use “their” as a singular pronoun later on in the sentence?

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In Grammer Pole of the Weak, we typically tackle issues of English grammar and usage, as well as questions of style (in terms of legal writing, not fashion). Last week, we delved into the fun topic of em-dash spacing, and learned that our readers are essentially deadlocked on whether to use a space before and after an em dash. In the end, using spaces prevailed by a margin as narrow as Mitt Romney’s Iowa caucus victory.

Our latest grammar poll pertains to usage, but it has a political component to it as well. It touches on hot-button issues like affirmative action and racial preferences, about which our readers have passionate opinions.

The question, in a nutshell: What does it mean to be a “diverse” individual?

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we discovered that our readers’ preference for using pled over pleaded as the past tense of the verb plead hasn’t changed too drastically since 2008: 57% of lawyers still prefer to use pled. So much for members of this profession being sticklers for rules, grammatical or otherwise, eh?

This week, we’ll be turning to a question of spacing. We’ve already dealt with sentence spacing — specifically, whether one space or two should be used between sentences — but today, we’re going to take a look at the em dash. Should you be using a space before and after an em dash?

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that 75% of our readers thought using the word “like” to introduce a quotation would like, make the speaker sound like a Valley girl, despite its apparent linguistic usefulness.

This week, thanks to popular demand from our readers, we’ll be turning to a contested issue among lawyers. What is the preferred past tense form for the verb pleadpleaded or pled?

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Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we discovered that roughly six percent of our readers use — and will continue using — the word “irregardless,” despite the fact that it isn’t a proper word. Please God, make it stop.

Speaking of God, that brings us to this week’s topic: because people are so easily offended, should lawyers strike the term “act of God” and use the phrase “act of nature” instead?

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