English Grammar and Usage

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.

Before law school, I considered myself a pretty detail-oriented person, especially when it came to writing. After entering law school, I was dismayed to find myself to be unimpressively average in a group where just about everyone was anal about typos, grammar, spelling, etc. Then I spent a summer at a large law firm and was appalled to discover that in this environment, my technical abilities were best described as a meager “below average.”

A few years at large law firms set my anal retentiveness straight. I counted two spaces after a period (in the olden days when everyone seemed to agree it was the right thing to do); made sure semicolons, not commas, followed every colon; and ensured absolute consistency in underlining or bolding definitions. After a few years, I became satisfied that I had reached a black-belt level of ability to churn out a technically perfect document.

Then, I went in-house….

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In this day and age, the rejection letter is few and far between. Most law school graduates who are desperately searching for employment have only their empty inboxes to serve as their cold, harsh dose of reality. Truth be told, some even long to receive those uncommon rejection letters, if only in recognition of their continued existence on this planet as a human being with a piece of paper that’s worth six figures and then some.

But if you were to receive one of those magical, mystical rejection letters, wouldn’t it make you feel better if that letter were so riddled with typos that it would be hard to believe that it had been sent to you by a Biglaw firm?

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Federal judges don’t always tell lawyers that their writing is crap, but when they do, they’ll do it in a publicly filed court order. Because while judges have got many a tool in their benchslapping arsenal, a public shaming is perhaps the most useful of them all.

Today’s instance of public shaming comes to us courtesy of Judge Steven Merryday (M.D. Fla.), the same fellow who denied a motion to suspend trial in a death penalty case from an attorney who wanted to participate in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

Let’s jump right in and see what happened, because this judge had a field day with redlining….

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Take the words “all contributors.” Now close your eyes and contemplate what those words mean in plain English. This exercise serves two purposes, by both focusing your mind on the definition and simulating exactly how much the D.C. Circuit thinks you should know about the political process. How did they come to their decision, you might ask? By twisting, turning, and bending the words of the English language in a way that’s still illegal in nine states.

I mean, what more can you say about an opinion that calls dictionaries an “optical illusion?” Seriously…

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I used to have nightmares about the red pen, until I started drinking before bed.

As regular readers of this website will note, my grammar and spelling is not too well. As regular readers of this website will also note, this is a blog, not a legal document or a court filing. When I wrote legal documents for a living, I also had legal secretaries who would fix some of the liberties I’d take with the English language. Even without that help, no document leaves a Biglaw office until it has been looked at by a bunch of people. A typo emanating from my desk would have had to escape the notice of at least three other people before making it out of the building.

I could not have survived in the small-firm or solo practitioner environment. Without people who dot an “i,” and cross a “t,” and say, “I have no earthly idea of what you are trying to say, because your sentence has three subjects and no predicates,” I’m in a bit of trouble.

I’d probably end up looking a lot like Howard Roy Schechter — a California lawyer who seemingly sent out a cease-and-desist letter that could have been written in crayon for its childlike attention to detail….

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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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