English Grammar and Usage

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?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Small Firms, Big Lawyers: 20 Ways to Write Like a Tool”

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.…

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Small Firms, Big Lawyers: The ‘Lost’ Art of Hyphens”


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.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “In Today’s New York Times”

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

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?

Page 6 of 71...234567