English Grammar and Usage

Pronunciation.gifIs it SUBstantive or subSTANtive? Our dictionary tells us to emphasize the first syllable.
A lovely Canadian professor at our law school emphasizes the second syllable, and although our affection for him is great, every time he says “subSTANtive” we take away ten points on our completely subjective professor-grading scale. How about THAT, professor? Students grade YOU TOO. (Just kidding. Kinda.)

On Fridays, we like to poll our readership on random subjects. Often these reader polls relate to matters of style and usage. Past polls have covered such important topics as favorite email sign-offs and whether to use “pleaded” or “pled” in legal writing.

Here’s today’s topic. It’s about what to call a version of a document in which changes from a prior version — or, more generally, divergences from a different version — are indicated on the face of the document (e.g., with strikethrough text showing deleted language, or double-underscored text showing added language).

From a curious tipster:

Is it “redline” or “blackline”? What is the difference, and why does my Asset Management group seem to use one, and M&A the other? Could this be the basis of an ATL usage survey?

FWIW, this Google Answers thread is the only online discussion I have found of this matter, and it is not especially responsive.

We’re curious as well. In the chambers in which we clerked, such documents were called “redlines.” But at the law firm for which we worked, most of our colleagues called them “blacklines.”

What’s your preference? Take the poll below, and opine in the comments.

Many ATL readers have a weakness for obscure debates about punctuation, grammar, usage, and style. See, e.g., here, here, and here. It makes sense; after all, lawyers are paid to worry about such things as proper comma placement.
So we weren’t surprised when several of you drew our attention to this interesting New York Times article, all about the semicolon. The piece, currently at the top of the Most Emailed Articles list, has a legal angle:

People have lost fortunes and even been put to death because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers. In 2004, a court in San Francisco rejected a conservative group’s challenge to a statute allowing gay marriage because the operative phrases were separated incorrectly by a semicolon instead of by the proper conjunction.

According to the Times, “whatever one’s personal feelings about semicolons, some people don’t use them because they never learned how.” Are you a member of that group?


Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location [New York Times]

email e-mail small message microsoft outlook Above the Law.JPGToday is Friday, and you know what that means at ATL: randomness and triviality! Not that this site doesn’t already wallow in randomness and triviality, of course. But on Fridays, we go the extra mile.

In a prior random Friday poll, we asked for your views on “pleaded” versus “pled” (and “pled” won; results here). Today we also have a question about writing and style. From a tipster:

Suggestion for slow news period. I have always been amazed (and annoyed) at the salutations and endings used in business emails from attorneys. The ubiquitous “Best regards” seems to be the party favorite. But I’ve seen many other options.

The tipster then provided a laundry list of email endings, which we’ve turned into a poll. Check it out, after the jump.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Random Friday Poll: Your Favorite Email Sign-Off?”

Today is Friday, when we entertain offbeat reader requests. Like this one:

I’ve billed a couple of hours this week arguing with different partners about whether “pled” or “pleaded” is the preferred past tense form of “plead.” Can I get a poll? I wonder what Biglaw associates and old-school partners have to say about it.

I’ve generally found that most younger attorneys use “pled” while the more senior attorneys prefer “pleaded.” Anyway, just random thoughts for a Friday morning.

Back in our brief-writing days, we used “pleaded,” which we felt better captured the “past-ness” of the event. But that’s just our opinion. What do you think?

gun pistol firearm Second Amendment Harris Parker dc gun control case.JPGYesterday’s New York Times contains an interesting op-ed about how to read the Second Amendment. Adam Freedman — author of The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese, a potential stocking stuffer for the lawyer in your life — parses the use of commas in the amendment. He concludes:

[At the time of the Second Amendment's drafting,] lawmakers took a devil-may-care approach to punctuation. Often, the whole business of punctuation was left to the discretion of scriveners, who liked to show their chops by inserting as many varied marks as possible.

Another problem with trying to find meaning in the Second Amendment’s commas is that nobody is certain how many commas it is supposed to have. The version that ended up in the National Archives has three, but that may be a fluke. Legal historians note that some states ratified a two-comma version. At least one recent law journal article refers to a four-comma version.

The best way to make sense of the Second Amendment is to take away all the commas (which, I know, means that only outlaws will have commas). Without the distracting commas, one can focus on the grammar of the sentence.

… [W]hen the justices finish diagramming the Second Amendment, they should end up with something that expresses a causal link, like: “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, the amendment is really about protecting militias, notwithstanding the originalist arguments to the contrary.

In fairness to the other side of the debate, that’s just one scholar’s opinion. Many others, including prominent liberal academics, disagree.
What do you think? Take our poll, after the jump.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “On Pistols and Punctuation (Plus a Poll)”

* Gay marriages legally-cognizable-relationships-that-will-probably-get-called-civil-unions are coming to New Jersey.
ted olson lady booth.JPG* Superstar lawyer Ted Olson, who is not gay, got married — to a lovely lady named Lady. And ATL has the exclusive photos to prove it.
* Law firms are tying the knot too. The latest to head for the altar: Dewey Ballantine and Orrick.
* Things are going less smoothly for celebrities. Country music star Sara Evans is getting divorced. Jane Pauley is filing suit. Naomi Campbell is getting arrested. And Foxy Brown is getting sentenced.
* Paralegal pay ain’t half bad, as long as you work for Biglaw — and put in lots of overtime.
* Think grammar and punctuation are silly and useless? Listen to the cautionary tale of the costly comma.
* Justice Scalia: You like him, you really like him!
* As for your Least Favorite Supreme Court Justice, we’ll keep the polls open over the weekend. To vote, click here.
* And if you’d like to cast a ballot in a more frivolous poll, help Judge Janice Rogers Brown pick a hairstyle. To vote, click here.

comma missing million dollars.JPGThe lawyers among you should know: Little things matter a lot.
Earlier this month, we told you about the missing “L” that cost a county $40,000. But $40K is chump change compared to the million dollars that turns upon an allegedly misplaced comma:

[A] dispute between Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, and a telephone company in Atlantic Canada, Bell Aliant, is over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles. But the argument turns on a single comma in the 14-page contract. The answer is worth 1 million Canadian dollars ($888,000 U.S.).

Citing the “rules of punctuation,” Canada’s telecommunications regulator recently ruled that the comma allowed Bell Aliant to end its five-year agreement with Rogers at any time with notice. Rogers argues that pole contracts run for five years and automatically renew for another five years, unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.

(Gavel bang: blah blah blog.)
Canadian lawyers are being hired in significant numbers by major American law firms. They claim it’s because of their superior training and lawyering skills. But Canucks make drafting mistakes too, eh?
Now it’s time for you to play judge. Here’s the contractual language at issue:

“This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year.

What do you think? We don’t have a strong view. (But the fact that Rogers is attempting to bolster its position by relying upon the French version of the contract makes us lean in favor of Bell Aliant.)
The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian) [New York Times via How Appealing]
Million-Dollar Comma May Aid Canadian Company [NPR via bla blah blog]
Why is grammar so very important? [blah blah blog]
Earlier: Our Kingdom for an “L”
Didn’t Get a Biglaw Job? Blame Canada!

thoughtful man.gifAnn Althouse raises a potential quibble with the above quip, made by Justice Antonin Scalia in a public appearance this past weekend. She writes:

It would be better to say “not everything that is stupid is unconstitutional.” “Everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional” can be read to mean that every stupid thing is constitutional, when plenty of stupid things are unconstitutional. I know there’s some argument over whether this should actually be considered a usage error. The argument that it’s not usually brings up Shakespeare’s “All that glisters is not gold.” Why didn’t he write “Not all that glisters is gold”?

Howard Bashman criticizes Professor Althouse for engaging in “untoward nitpicking on the internet.” But it seems to us that Althouse, after raising this possible ambiguity, ultimately comes down on the same side as Bashman:

[F]orget about this particular language nicety, I’d say. I’m rather glad to myself, since I was personally needled for years by someone who was inordinately vigilant on this usage point.

To support her position that this is much ado about nothing, Althouse cites Fowler. And as we’ve pointed out in these pages, Justice Scalia is a devout follower of Fowler.
We say: Everything is illuminated that is not unilluminated. Including the dispute over this issue of usage.
“It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional.” [Althouse]
Does “Everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional” equal “Every stupid thing is constitutional”? [How Appealing]
Earlier: The Eyes of the Law: A Legitimate Use of “Scalito”
The “S” Clash: Scalia’s Position Explained
Read This Only If You’re a Grammar Nerd

evan caminker 4 evan h caminker dean caminker.JPGasha rangappa 2 asha rangapa asha ranggappa asha ranggapa.JPG* This week we crowned America’s hottest law school deans: Evan Caminker, of Michigan, and Asha Rangappa, of Yale. When contacted by ATL, both of them issued gracious statements.
* So there’s no contest for you to vote in over the weekend. But please participate in our informal reader poll, seeking to ascertain your Favorite Supreme Court Justice.
* Speaking of the justices, don’t they have more important things to fight over than grammar? And who knew that bright-line Nino could be so nuanced?
* A theme for this past week: Celebrities’ legal woes. E.g., Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan, Wesley Snipes, Madonna, and Anna Nicole Smith.
* Another theme: Getting off. E.g., Junior Gotti, Nathan Hecht, and the Duke lacrosse team (but from “innocent sexual activity”).
* Second Circuit Judge John M. Walker hits a New Haven police officer in a traffic accident. The matter is under investigation.
* Global warming practice groups — are they heating up? Or are they the next “Y2K” practice groups?
* Eh, what do you care? You can’t get a Biglaw job anyway — they’re all going to Canadians.
* Team ATL has a new recruit — and he’s proud to be an American. Meet B Clerker.
* If you hate kids, then stop reading here. But if you like ‘em, then click here, scroll down, and read about the amusing antics of attorney spawn.

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