February 11, 2006
nouns into verbs
At a recent meeting, a university administrator talked about "incenting" departments to save money. Although I applaud conciseness and his sentence used fewer words than "providing departments with an incentive to save money," I can't quite accept his usage!!
If you are from a generation that never learned to diagram sentences, memorize Latin declensions, or see the difference between a gerund and gerundive, you may find helpful C. Edward Good's book Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession. This book does not explain grammar just so you can get it right, rather it explains how to use grammar to make your legal writing more effective. It is an easy read, and it is carefully geared to the needs of lawyers and law students. And it is full of wonderful examples. Indeed, references to Willie Nelson and Justice Robert H. Jackson appear on the same page. (spl)
February 10, 2006
Congratulations are also in order for the faculty and administration at Wake Forest University School of Law. They recently agreed to:
- upgrade legal writing faculty contracts from one year to longer terms,
- allow legal writing faculty to vote at faculty meetings, on all matters except rank, promotion and tenure,
- raise the salaries of their legal writing faculty to above average for their region of the country,
- give their legal writing faculty opportunities to serve on faculty committees,
- have legal writing faculty performance reviewed by the dean in the same way other law professors are, opening the way for merit-based pay increases, and
- let legal writing faculty teach upper level writing courses and other seminar courses.
Now that's a lot of progress!
If kids on a soccer team can "verse" the opposing team and McDonald's can encourage us to "gift it," what is happening to our language? And what should legal writers do about it? For an interesting update, see http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1139479511549. (spl)
February 9, 2006
Congratulations to the faculty at the Capital University Law School, which recently voted to:
- change the titles of its legal writing teachers from "Instructors" to "Professors of Legal Writing,"
- increase those professors' long-term contracts from 3 year terms to 5 year terms, and
- allow those professors to vote in faculty meetings, on all matters except those dealing with faculty personnel decisions and hiring.
Now that's progress!
February 8, 2006
looking for sample documents?
A great source for court documents that will grab your students' attention is http://www.thesmokinggun.com/. In it you can find complaints (I've used the ones from the lawsuit over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance and from Tom Cruise's suit against an actor who claimed that they had had a homosexual relationship that led to his break-up with Nicole Kidman), backstage riders (what singers want available backstage can be scary or laughable), and mug shots (not exactly legal writing, but fun nonetheless).
My number one pet peeve is "in order to." Ninety-nine percent of the time when I see "in order to," it can simply be replaced with "to," with no harm to the content or style of the writing (and often some improvement). Its closest runner-up, IMHO, is "for the purpose of," which can usually be replaced with "for" or "to." These phrases repeated frequently in a document signal to me that the writer has not yet achieved a truly sophisticated level of writing or editing. (spl)
February 7, 2006
Here's a sobering example of a court's sanctioning an attorney who misrepresented judicial opinioins in a brief: Precision Specialty Metals, Inc. v. United States, 315 F. 3d 1346 (C.A. Fed. 2003).
AALS Section program
The recorded program of the AALS Section on Legal Writing, Reasoning, and Research, held in Washington, D.C., in January, is now available for viewing on the web at the Section website.
The program covered teaching and assessing professionalism. Sophie Sparrow, of Franklin Pierce College of Law, was the Program Chair. The speakers included Larry Krieger from Florida State; Laurie Morin from the University of D.C.; and David Stern, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Michigan Medical School. (spl)
February 6, 2006
Frank McCourt's recently published Teacher Man is mostly set many decades ago, in the NY area, and he teaches writing to high school students mainly. Thus, although he won a Pulitzer previously, I almost didn't get the book because I didn't think this memoir would hit home much to my experience teaching LRW today. I was wrong; it is a great read with inspiring insights for all teachers (and makes one realize the universality of the process from law school to grade school, the fundamentals are the same). It's a "memoir" (Oprah beware).
Professor Brady Coleman
South Texas College of Law
Redundancy is one of the hallmarks of American legal English. "On or about" such-and-such a date, the complaint reads. "Cease and desist," the judge orders. Many of these redundancies, now committed out of habit, began with an earnest effort to be thorough and avoid problems. If the judge simply used the verb "stop" nowadays, surely the parties would know what to do.
Some of the more interesting redundancies in legal English are the result of history. We write a last "will and testament" because "will" is of Anglo-Saxon origin and "testament" is from the Norman French, reflecting the two languages used in the English courts after 1066. If you ask the average American lawyer or law student why we have the two words that mean essentially the same thing, "will" and "testament," with a moment's thought probably most will be able to answer.
But why then do we "will, devise, and bequeath?" Sure, "will" is from the Anglo-Saxon, and "devise" is from the Norman French. But do you know the origin of "bequeath?" Apparently it's from the Vikings, whose Norse language crept into legal English as they marauded around Eastern England and sometimes settled there. (spl)
February 5, 2006
pet peeve number two
My colleague Bryan Camp, a talented and thoughtful writer, provided me with today's pet peeve: "very unique."
Unique means "being the only one" or "unequaled" in its first two listed meanings in Merriam Webster. As the notes following that entry indicate, modifying "unique" when it is used in those senses is incorrect. When it is used to mean "peculiar" or "unusual" (the latter-listed meanings), then modification is acceptable. As numerous other sources indicate, a split of opinion exists--some grammarians do not accept those later-listed meanings and hence cringe at any modification of the word.
So let's see . . . a snowflake is not "very unique"--it's unique.
Standing in line at the grocery store may be unique every time that one does it, but unless a fight breaks out over someone's having 20 items in the 12-item express lane, it's probably not even somewhat unique--in fact, it's very UN-unique in the latter-listed meanings of the word.
Eating gravy on apple pie may be unique, "somewhat unique," or "very unique."
Each day is unique in the sense of the first-listed meanings, but often not unique in the sense of the latter-listed meanings.
In short? While everything is unique in the sense of being the only one, not everything is very or somewhat unique--or even unique at all--in its peculiarity or unusualness. A Westlaw search for "very unique" returns 289 documents in the allstates database and 214 in allfeds. A quick review indicates that most of the "very unique" usages mean "very unusual." Rather than rile up the grammarians, why not use "unique" to convey "one of a kind" and "unusual" to convey "unusual"? Then modify unusual to your heart's content!!
(There is a federal distrct court decision out of California that uses "very unique and unusual"--guess that judge wanted to cover all bases!!)