English Grammar and Usage

Good morning, and welcome to Above the Law’s latest Friday series: Grammer Pole of the Weak.

Last week, we discovered that 62.3% of readers think that it’s all right to use alright. As a grammar nazi, I can’t even describe how much it pained me to write the phrase “Grammer Pole of the Weak.”

Which reminds me: readers, the title of this weekly poll is supposed to be ironic. Are you serial with all of these emails correcting our spelling?

Speaking of being serial, let’s turn to the topic of this week’s discussion: the serial comma….

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Here at Above the Law, we’ve been discussing English grammar and usage forever — well, at least since 2006. We’ve discussed a plethora of grammatical and stylistic issues over the years, including how to form the possessive singular of nouns, proper use of the comma and the semicolon, and, most recently, whether to use one space or two spaces between sentences.

We’ve now decided to formalize the discussion. Every Friday we will raise an issue of grammar, spelling, or style, in our newest ATL feature: Grammer Pole of the Weak. We will kick off the discussion, then open up a reader poll and let you debate in the comments.

Today’s topic: “all right” versus “alright.” Let’s discuss….

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My overlords here at ATL thought it would be fun to run a poll about whether there should be one space or two after a period. As if these things are decided by popularity, rather than by rules. This is strange, really, because just about all of you reading this are lawyers or studying to become lawyers. Better than anyone, lawyers know that we rely on laws and rules to decide what’s what, rather than an American Idol–style unscientific poll (where voters are self-selected and can vote multiple times).

As of this writing (late last night), the score was 65.9% saying “two spaces” to 34.1% saying “one space.” Now I’m no math geek (hence law school), but it looks like nearly two-thirds of you think a period takes two spaces after it.

Are you right, and does it really matter?

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Sometimes readers will email us with ideas for posts that range from the insane to the mundane. We’ve learned that what may seem mundane to the average citizen may be totally titillating for an attorney.

Members of this profession really, really like rules, especially rules about proper English grammar and usage. Be it confusion over a homophone, misuse of a hyphen, or incorrect placement of a semicolon, every grammar Nazi has a special place reserved in his heart for the idiot who screws these things up.

And that is why the topic of today’s reader poll is about how many spaces one should use between sentences….

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Sheryl Crow

* I’m standing in the middle of a desert, waiting for my ship to come in. But now no joker, no J.D. degree, can take your losing hand, and make it win; you should be leaving Las Vegas. [WSJ Law Blog]

* If Miami Law could somehow figure out a way to actually do this, they would usher in a new era where law schools might still be expensive, but not useless. At some point, the way we educate future lawyers has to change, doesn’t it? [Roy Black]

* The law and law enforcement will always be behind the curve when trying to police cutting-edge techniques employed to unwittingly photograph naked women. Still not sure if you want to click on the link? How about: “This is why Kash is afraid to pee.” [Not-So Private Parts / Forbes]

* I don’t understand and/or don’t care why so many lawyers have a problem with the “and/or” construction. [Legal Blog Watch]

* Listening to Lat and Bess Levin discuss the various things can happen to meth users was the highlight of my day at the office, but seriously kids, don’t do drugs. [Dealbreaker]

* What do you get for the billionaire who has everything? His own prison. [Sentencing Law & Policy]

Chris Christie

* Wait, John Grisham stories are fictional? Man, I always thought that nobody offered to pay off my debts and buy me a house and a car in Memphis because of my race. [ABA Journal]

* New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is going to be okay. [Slate]

* Scott Drake asked me to do a podcast just after I read Rick Matasar’s response to the New York Times. This recording was made after I calmed down. [Legal Broadcast Network]

Ever see Fight Club? Yeah, me neither. The 1999 Brad Pitt movie was more of a cult film than a commercial success, although it did make back its costs. But the movie did have a line that became something of a meme, and was once recognized by Premiere magazine as the 27th greatest line in movie history (which seems dubious, but whatever):

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

If only lawyers had the same rule.

You see, being a lawyer is like being a member of an elite club. OK, maybe not as elite as we like to think; there are more than a million members in the US. But elite enough. And the problem is, too many of us are dying to show off to others that we’re members of law club. And one of the ways we do it is by trying to sound like a lawyer when we speak, and especially when we write. This is a problem because sounding like a lawyer is the same as sounding like a tool.

I’ve come up with 20 lawyerisms that do nothing to advance the message you’re trying to send, but instead show that you’re a member of law club. And that you sound like a tool.

How many of the 20 do you use?

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I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom. Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, quoted in an interesting New York Times piece by Adam Liptak about how Supreme Court justices are consulting and quoting dictionaries more frequently in their opinions.

Did you watch Lost? I was a big fan of the show, which ran on ABC from 2004 to 2010. The series required quite a commitment from its viewers, since it had a large ensemble cast and was a true serial — you really couldn’t miss any episodes. After the third season, the producers made the unusual announcement that the series would definitely conclude at the end of the sixth season. Since so many elements of the show remained a mystery until the very end, it became a guessing game as to whether the writers would be able to tie everything together into a satisfying ending.

Toward the end of the final season, the show revealed a location that we’d never seen before that was crucial to explaining the Island’s secrets. (I’m not giving anything away here if you haven’t seen it.) But the location, a glowing cave, was rendered with cheesy special effects that looked like they’d been borrowed from the original 1960s “Star Trek” series. The bad effects were so jarring that they took the viewer out of the story, causing you to say, “What’s with the cheeseball special effects?”

What the heck does this have to do with improving your legal writing? Find out after the jump.…

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New York Times NYT newspaper.jpgIf you happen to be on the frigid East Coast today, currently experiencing the coldest temperatures of the season, grab yourself a cup of cocoa and a copy of the Sunday New York Times. The NYT often has articles of interest to a legal audience, but this weekend’s edition has an especially high number of stories either by or about the boldface names of the legal profession. To wit:
John Yoo John C Yoo John Choon Yoo law professor.jpg1. Power of Attorney: Questions for John Yoo. Deborah Solomon interviews John Yoo, the Berkeley law professor perhaps most well-known for his authorship of the so-called “torture memos.” Considering her liberal politics and modus operandi as an interviewer — we’ve previously described her as “snarky, cranky, exceedingly direct” — we were expecting her to go to town on Yoo.
But Professor Yoo actually comes across very well in the short Q-and-A (and is looking newly svelte in the accompanying photo). He’s smart, funny, and charming — not a surprise to us, based on our personal interactions with him, but perhaps a surprise to some who know only the cartoon villain depicted by the mainstream media.
2. The 30-Minute Interview: Jonathan L. Mechanic. An interesting interview with real estate super-lawyer Jonathan Mechanic, chairman of the real estate department of Fried Frank (and previously profiled here). We learn that Mechanic, in addition to being a top real estate attorney, is also a real estate investor: he owns retail and commercial properties in Bergen County, NJ (where we grew up).
Three more stories, after the jump.

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not so fresh feeling Massengill douche douchebag Above the Law blog.jpgToday is Friday, when we present for your consideration quirky queries about style, grammar, and usage. E.g., how to pronounce “substantive”; is a marked-up document a “blackline,” or a “redline”; and do you prefer “pleaded” or “pled” in legal writing.
This latest poll may seem a little edgy (especially since today is Good Friday). But it actually presents a serious and legitimate question now facing Second Circuit judges (and their law clerks). Legal research reveals a split of authority; the courts have been inconsistent.
For background, read this post, including all the updates and comments. Now, the question:


Earlier: Lawsuit of the Day: Second Circuit Gets That ‘Not So Fresh’ Feeling

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