Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: premises.

premises.

“Premises” (= a house or building) has a curious history. Originally, it denoted in law the part of a deed that sets forth the names of the grantor and grantee, as well as the things granted and the consideration. Then, through hypallage, it was extended to refer to the subject of a conveyance or bequest, specified in the premises of the deed. Finally, it was extended to refer to a house or building along with its grounds. In short, someone who says, “No alcohol is allowed on these premises” is unconsciously using a popularized technicality.

The term is always used in the plural — e.g.: “These premises were originally let in 1957 by the appellant’s predecessor in title.” Paul Magrath, “Variation of Lease Did Not Create New Tenancy,” Independent, 14 Sept. 1995, at 12.

It is pronounced /PREM-i-siz/, not /-seez/.

Unfortunately, some people (misunderstanding the term and its history) have begun referring to “this premise” when they mean “this piece of property.” In 2003, a famous San Francisco steakhouse sported an unidiomatic, ill-premised sign inside the front door: “No alcohol may be taken off this premise.”

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Beginning writers want to start with large abstractions, in the mistaken belief that the bigger the topic is, the more there is to say about it. It doesn’t work out that way. Usually the first sentence of the essay tells whether the writer knows this or not. Essays on friendship that begin ‘Friendship is one of the most important things in life’ are doomed, because the writer doesn’t know it. Essays that begin ‘Mary was my best friend in high school’ will thrive, because the writer does know it.” Jack Rawlins, “Five Principles for Getting Good Ideas,” in About Language 10, 13 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

LawProse Lesson #180: Conjunctions as sentence-starters

There are certain bits of knowledge that distinguish connoisseurs from poseurs, professionals from dilettantes, cognoscenti from wannabes. In the realm of grammar and writing, it tends to be the sureness that sentence-starting conjunctions are perfectly acceptable and often desirable (connoisseurs), or else the certitude that they are outright mistakes (misinformed poseurs). From at least the time of Chaucer, expert writers have tended to begin 10-20% of their sentences with conjunctions. Grammarians have either been silent on the point–and have begun about the same percentage of their own sentences that way–or have heartily endorsed the technique. From the beginning of the 17th century, no reputable grammarian has denounced it (and before that they were silent).

       Oh, but your third-grade teacher denounced it, and how! She wanted to break you of the habit of starting every sentence with “and.” That was a bad habit. So she tried to curtail your habit, neglecting to tell you that you’d ultimately want to have a fair percentage of your sentences begin with conjunctions (especially “but”). But truth be told, she might not have known that.

       On any given day or week, check pages of the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or whatever other outlet for first-rate nonfiction you like. If you haven’t noticed this point before, you may well be surprised. Oh, and if you disbelieve what you’re reading here, look at the work of any recognized authority on English grammar. Almost certainly you’ll find denunciations of the myth that “initial-position adversatives” are bad grammar. The more prescriptive the grammarian, the harsher the denunciation.

        One last thing: please don’t think this technique has anything to do with formality or informality. No. It has to do with effective vs. ineffective style. There are ten sentence-starting conjunctions in the United States Constitution. And rightly so. While an ill-informed drafter tends to write “provided, however, that,” a well-informed legal stylist tends to write “But” and to put the exception in a separate sentence.

        Please don’t send hate mail. Just look in books. Real books. You choose them. Try proving me wrong. And start observing. Ask yourself why an initial “But” outperforms “However,” why “And” outperforms “Furthermore,” and “So” outperforms “Consequently” or “Accordingly.” There’s a rhythm and euphony behind a sprightly, brisk style. For the mortar words in the language, the monosyllables can’t be equaled.

FURTHER READING:

Kingsley Amis, The King’s English 14 (1997).

R.W. Burchfield, Points of View 109 (1992).

The Chicago Manual of Style 257-58 (16th ed. 2009).

Roy H. Copperud, American Usage: The Consensus 15 (1970).

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 64 (1966).

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 29 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).

Garner on Language and Writing 63-87 (2009).

Garner’s Modern American Usage 44-45 (3d ed. 2009).

Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 56, 126-27 (3d ed. 2011).

Charles Allen Lloyd, We Who Speak English 19 (1938).

Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (1942).

Lucile Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing 85-86 (1965).

John Trimble, Writing with Style 81 (1975).

William Zinsser, On Writing Well 74 (6th ed. 1998).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: overly.

overly.

Although it’s old, dating from about the 12th century, “overly” is almost always unnecessary because “over-” may be prefixed at will: “overbroad,” “overrefined,” “overoptimistic,” “overripe, ” etc. When “overly” is not unnecessary, it’s merely ugly. Some authorities consider “overly” semiliterate, although the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries have used it in a number of definitions. Certainly this adverb should be avoided whenever possible, though admittedly “over-” as a prefix sometimes just doesn’t sound right (“overburdensome”). Yet it usually serves well — e.g.: “To supporters, Duke’s initiative was a worthy, if overly ambitious [read 'overambitious'], effort.” Peter Applebome, “Duke Learns of Pitfalls in Promise of Hiring More Black Professors,” N.Y. Times, 19 Sept. 1993, at 1.

When “over-” is awkward or ugly-sounding, another word is invariably at the ready — e.g.:

o “Hence the UN inspectors were not overly [read 'especially'] skeptical when they started their work of scrutinizing Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.” “Saddam’s UN Nemesis,” Boston Globe, 8 June 1997, at D6.

o “There are certain things that are correct in one context but overly [read 'unduly'] formal or stuffy in another.” Mary Newton Brudner, The Grammar Lady 6 (2000).

o “The harsher attacks create some risk for McCain, analysts say, because he may come off as overly [read 'too'] negative.” Jill Zuckman, “McCain Ad Fights Rival’s Celebrity Head-On,” Chicago Trib., 31 July 2008, News §, at 1.

Language-Change Index – “overly” instead of “unduly” or the prefix “over-”: Stage 4.

To learn more about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler 222 (1912; repr. 1926).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Noun Plague.

Noun Plague.

This is Wilson Follett’s term for the piling up of nouns to modify other nouns (Modern American Usage 229 (1966)). When a sentence has more than two nouns in a row, it generally becomes much less readable. The following sentence is badly constructed because of the noun-upon-noun syndrome, which (sadly) is more common now than in Follett’s day: “Consumers complained to their congressmen about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s automobile seat belt ‘interlock’ rule.” One can hardly make it to the sentence end to discover that we’re talking about a rule. (Even worse, many writers today would leave off the possessive after “Administration.”) In the interest of plague control, the following rewrite is advisable: “the ‘interlock’ rule applied to automotive seat belts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” A few prepositional phrases and an adjective (“automotive”) do the job.

Readability typically plummets when three words that are ordinarily nouns follow in succession, although exceptions such as “fidelity life insurance” certainly exist. But the plague is unendurable when four nouns appear consecutively, as when writers refer to a *”participation program principal category” or the *”retiree benefit explanation procedure.” Occasionally one encounters even longer strings: in 1997, a major national bank circulated a form entitled “Government Securities Dealership Customer Account Information Form” — which might be something of a record.

It is true, of course, that noun-stacking really involves making all but the last noun into adjectives. But the problem is that many readers will think that they’ve hit upon the noun when they’re still reading adjectives. Hence a miscue occurs.

Finally, it is worth cautioning against loading a single statement with too many abstract nouns ending in “-tion.” The effect isn’t pleasing: “This work led to a consideration of additional important attributes of information and communication media within organizations.” Ralph H. Sprague, “Electronic Document Management,” MIS Q., Mar. 1995, at 29.

*Invariably inferior forms.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Talkative shallow men doe often content the Hearers, more then the wise.” Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries (1641), in Classics in Composition 43, 61 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: methodology.

methodology.

“Methodology,” strictly speaking, means “the science or study of method.” But it is now widely misused as a fancy equivalent of “method” or “methods” — e.g.:

o “Defenders of scientific methodology [read either 'scientific methods' or 'the scientific method'] were urged to counterattack against faith healing, astrology, religious fundamentalism and paranormal charlatanism.” Malcolm W. Browne, “Scientists Deplore Flight from Reason,” N.Y. Times, 6 June 1995, at C1.

o “Some Fulton commissioners, guided by the grumbling of employees who did not get raises, complained about the study’s methodology [read 'method' or 'methods'] and results.” Carlos Campos, “County Medical Examiner Plans to Retire,” Atlanta J. & Const., 5 June 1997, at E12.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.” Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), in Learning to Write 44, 44 (1920).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: judgment.

judgment.

Part A: Spelling. “Judgment” is the preferred form in American English and in British legal texts, even as far back as the 19th century. “Judgement” is prevalent in British nonlegal texts and was thought by H.W. Fowler to be the better form (Modern English Usage 1 at 310).

Part B: American and British Legal Senses. In American English, a “judgment” is the final decisive act of a court in defining the rights of the parties {the judgment constituted the final decree}. In British English, “judgment” is commonly used in the sense in which “judicial opinion” is used in American English.

Part C: “Court judgment.” This phrase is a redundancy, though an understandable one when the likely readers are nonlawyers. For example, the following book’s title might have misled general readers if the word “court” had been removed: Gini G. Scott et al., Collect Your Court Judgment (1991).

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “There must be cohesion and continuity. The writer, seized by an idea, will keep right on writing. He will not go back at the second paragraph two or three times before writing the third. So long as original writing is under way and going well, he will keep the copy flowing. Then, the article completed, he will pause, hand over the reins to his intelligence, and start polishing and amending.” Royal Bank of Canada, The Communication of Ideas 100-01 (rev. ed. 1972).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Illogic (4).

Illogic (4).

Today: “Times Less Than.”

Brand Y may cost twice as much as Brand X, but that doesn’t mean Brand X is twice as cheap as Brand Y. Farburg may be two times as far away as Nearville, but that doesn’t mean Nearville is two times closer than Farburg. Big Dog may be twice the size of Little Dog, but that doesn’t mean Little Dog is two times smaller than Big Dog.

“One time” is 100% of the cost, distance, size, or any other measure. If you take away “one time” something, you’ve taken away all there is. If the price is discounted 100%, the item is free. “Two times cheaper,” if it means anything, might imply that the store will pay you the full price of Brand Y if you will take Brand X home with you. That mangles the meaning of “cost,” and it surely isn’t what the writer means.

What does the writer mean? Probably “half,” but who knows for sure? Yet despite the illogic of the phrase, it’s used all the time, even in scientific literature — e.g.: “Virus levels in the one animal were intermittently higher but still more than 100 times lower than [read 'less than 1% as much as'] those in four control animals that had not received the vaccine.” “HIV Vaccines: New Prime-Boost Strategy Shows Promise in Monkeys,” Gene Therapy Weekly, 22 Mar. 2001, at 9.

A similar but less egregious problem arises when we say that X is “two times more than” Y. The common understanding is that if Y is 1, then X is 2. But logically speaking, “more” implies that the 2 is added the 1, so X should be 3. The more precise wording is “X is two times as much as Y.”

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “The most plausible way to unify your paragraphs is to concentrate on building each one on a thought expressed in the first sentence.” Richard Marius, A Writer’s Companion 52 (1985).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Illogic (3).

Illogic (3).

Part A: Danglers and Misplaced Modifiers. Every dangler or misplaced modifier perverts logic to some degree, sometimes humorously — e.g.: “I saw the Statue of Liberty flying into Newark.” To avoid these disruptions of thought, remember that a participle should relate to a noun that’s capable of performing the participle’s action.

Part B: The Disjointed Appositive. Phrases intended to be in apposition shouldn’t be separated — e.g.: “A respected English legal authority on the common law, the view of William Blackstone permeated much of the early thinking on freedom of expression.” John Murray, The Media Law Dictionary 11 (1978). (Blackstone himself, not Blackstone’s view, is the respected authority.)

Part C: Mistaken Subject of a Prepositional Phrase. This problem crops up usually when a word or phrase intervenes between the noun and the prepositional phrase referring to that noun. Often, as here, the noun (“school bus”) functions as an adjective: “Wallin was the school bus driver in which [read 'Wallin was driving the school bus in which'] Hillman and Ellington and Kleven were passengers.”

Part D. Poor Exposition of Sequence. Don’t ask your readers to assume what is not logically possible by your very assumptions — e.g.: “The twin-engine turbo prop Merlin Fairchild 300 carrying driver Alan Kulwicki and three other men suddenly dropped off the radar screen and crashed shortly before landing.” Karen Allen & Erik Brady, “Motor Sports,” USA Today, 5 Apr. 1993, at C9. (Because the plane “landed” when it crashed, the logic of the temporal sequence is flawed.)

Next: “Times Less Than.”

For more information about the Language Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Few people . . . have had much training in listening. The training of most oververbalized professional intellectuals is in the opposite direction. Living in a competitive culture, most of us are most of the time chiefly concerned with getting our own views across, and we tend to find other people’s speeches a tedious interruption of the flow of our own ideas.” S.I. Hayakawa, Symbol, Status, and Personality 32 (1963).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Illogic (2).

Illogic (2).

Today: Illogical Comparisons.

This lapse occurs commonly in locutions such as “as large if not larger than,” which, when collapsed, becomes “as large than”; properly, one writes “as large as if not larger than.” Similar problems occur with classes of things. For example, when members of classes are being compared, a word such as “other” must be used to restrict the class: “Representative democracy is better than any [other] political system in the world.”

Another problem of comparison occurs when the writer forgets the point of reference in the comparison:

o “Like many others in Los Angeles, the quake helped Mr. Becker decide to leave.” “Deciding to Escape Los Angeles,” N.Y. Times, 18 Feb. 1994, at A10 (photo caption). This is a fine dangling modifier: the quake joined many others in L.A. in persuading Mr. Becker to leave.

o “Significantly, although industrial relations is regarded as more important than when the survey was last conducted, in September, it does not rate in the top 10 most dominant issues.” Michael Gordon, “Voters Swing Back to ALP on Issues,” Weekend Australian, 20-21 Jan. 1996, at 1. Insert the word “now” after “important.” Otherwise, it seems as if you’re comparing “industrial relations” to a given time. In fact, we’re comparing the importance of the issue then and now.

Next: More Logic Problems.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “A good two-thirds of the political editorials that are inflicted upon a gullible public follow the warm imagination or the hidden desires of the writer, and let logic and truth go hang. Such writing is often skillful, but it is seldom in any sense good.” Henry Seidel Canby, Better Writing 29 (1926).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Illogic (1).

Illogic (1).

Today: Logic vs. Idiom.

Anyone who would dare drag logic into a discussion on language must do so warily. For centuries, grammarians labored under the mistaken belief that grammar is nothing but applied logic and therefore tried to rid languages of everything illogical. But to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the life of the language has not been logic: it has been experience.

No serious student believes that grammatical distinctions necessarily reflect logical ones. Our language is full of idioms that defy logic, many of them literary or colloquial. We should not, for example, fret over the synonymy of “fat chance” and “slim chance,” or “miss” and “near miss.” We should instead smile at the playful genius of the language. Applying “linguistic logic” to established ways of saying things is a misconceived effort.

We see this misconception today when armchair grammarians insist that “grammatical error” is an Irish bull; that “the reason why” is wrong (no more so, certainly, than “place where” or “time when”); or that “a number of people” must always take a singular verb. When logic is used for such purposes, it’s worse than idle: it’s harmful.

That doesn’t mean that logic is irrelevant. For rhetorical purposes, it’s essential. Most readers will be distracted if they notice this type of problem. So strictly follow idiom and usage, but otherwise apply logic. The exercise tightens prose. Logic will help you avoid saying “I was literally scared to death,” because you’re still alive to report how scared you were. Likewise, logic helps you banish thoughtless words like “preplanned.”

Next: Illogical Comparisons.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “I once said that the three most important elements of fiction are plot, plot, and plot. The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity, and clarity.” Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction 2 (1969; Robert Mayhew ed., 2001).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment