LawProse Lesson #204: “Lay of the land” or “lie of the land”?

Lay of the land or lie of the land?

Literally, the phrase means “the arrangement of an area’s terrain; topography.” Figuratively, it refers to “the facts of a given situation; the current state of affairs.”

The phrase is an Americanism dating from the late 18th century. From the beginning, it’s been lay of the land—although as soon as it caught on in England, speakers of British English (BrE), beginning about 1860, started “correcting” the phrase to lie of the land. Today the lie form is about twice as common in British print sources.

But in American English (AmE), lay has always been predominant—today by an 8:1 ratio in print sources.

It’s true that using lay as a noun might not seem entirely traditional. But in 1934 the venerable Webster’s Second International Dictionary listed lay (n.) with ten different senses, #6 being “position and arrangement; specif., topographical features and situation; as, the lay of the land.”

The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1933), completed just a year before Webster’s Second, lists the same sense with illustrative quotations from 1819 {lay of the country} and 1864 {lay of the land}—the latter being from Henry David Thoreau.

The British “correction” of the phrase didn’t really take hold in BrE as the established form until the late 1880s.

But there’s no reason for Americans to think that the AmE form is inferior. It has a better lineage than the BrE form.

Golfers have good and bad lies in the fairway; carpet installers know to roll carpets against the lay of the nap; and hens have productive lays when their eggs are discharged. That’s all the examples we’ll give here: this is a clean column.

That’s the linguistic lay of the land.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Miscellaneous Entries.

Miscellaneous Entries.

libido. Although dictionaries once recorded /li-BIY-doh/ as the preferred pronunciation, /li-BEE-doh/ is now the established preference in American English.

licorice (/LiK-uh-rish/) is the standard spelling. “Liquorice” is a variant form. This word shouldn’t be confused with its uncommon homophones, “lickerish” (= lascivious, lecherous) and “liquorish” (= tasting like liquor).

lie/lay/lain. So inflected (except when “lie” means “to utter a falsity” — see below). A murderer may “lie in wait.” Yesterday he “lay in wait.” And for several days he has “lain in wait” — e.g.: “The Ramseys say an intruder may have lay [read 'lain'] in wait for hours before killing the 6-year-old beauty queen.” “Ramseys’ Mission: Find the Killer,” Austin Am.-Statesman, 18 Mar. 2000, at B8. In the sense of telling an untruth, the verb is inflected “lie”/”lied”/”lied.”

lie low; lay low. The latter phrase is incorrect.

lien, n. (= a legal right or interest that a creditor has in another’s property, lasting usu. until a debt that it secures is satisfied), is pronounced, most properly, /LEE-uhn/, or commonly but less properly /leen/ or /lin/.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “There is more to our language than just words, but the classic word-book — the dictionary — seems to many people to be the receptacle for the whole language, indeed to be the symbol of it. There seems to be something comforting about having on one’s bookshelf a handy directory to all the words of the language.” Randolph Quirk, “Thinking of Words,” in The Linguist and the English Language 128, 137 (1974).

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LawProse Lesson #203: “Lie low” or “lay low”?

Lie low or lay low?

     Both phrases could be correct—it depends on the tense you are using. Use lie low in the present tense; lay low in the past tense.

Ex.: The celebrity is lying low for a few weeks to avoid news reporters.
Ex.: Last month, that same celebrity lay low to avoid the paparazzi.
Ex.: He has lain low for almost a year.

The base verb used here, of course, is lie, conjugated lie-lay-lain, not the transitive lay as is often misused in phrases such as lie down and lie low.

Two interesting examples of the latter were drawn to our attention by Michael J. Young of Florence, South Carolina. He noted that the Associated Press writer got it wrong in reporting on the arrest of the “wealthy, eccentric” Robert Durst after an HBO documentary based on his life and alleged connection with three murders. Durst had been arrested, the reporters wrote, in a New Orleans hotel “where he had been laying low.” Read lying low.

On the same day, Reuters got it right in a piece on Russian president Vladimir Putin. The reporter said that Putin was scoffing at rumors that he had been in poor health and had to “lie low” for a while.

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 528, 544 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 501–03, 510 (3d ed. 2009).
The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 290 (3d ed. 2013).

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LawProse Lesson #202: Parenthetical plurals.

Should you use “(s)” to indicate that a noun could be either singular or plural?

Competent drafters should avoid creating parenthetical plurals and craft better ways to express a thought. A parenthetical plural is formed when an “(s)” is added to the end of a singular noun to indicate that the statement may apply to one or more members of the category.

The practice creates serious drafting problems. Does the noun take a singular or plural verb? If a pronoun refers to the parenthetical plural, should it be singular or plural? And what about nouns that don’t take a simple -s in the plural form (e.g., party)? Using “(s)” as a shortcut produces ungainly, unsightly sentences. For example:

If the defendant(s) fail(s) to comply with the court’s order, the defendant(s) will be held in contempt of court. [One possible revision: If a defendant fails to comply with the court’s order, that defendant will be held in contempt of court.]

When drafting contracts or statutes, prefer the singular over the plural unless the sense is undeniably plural (as when the sentence refers to a practice that is often repeated). Check every plural noun and make sure that it’s really necessary. You’ll enhance the clarity and readability of your documents.

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 685 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 135 (2d ed. 2013).

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LawProse Lesson #201: “Subpoena” vs. “subpena”

Why do so many federal statutes use the spelling subpena instead of subpoena?

     Funny thing. It seems to be the result of an old choice made for the Government Printing Office Style Manual. The earliest copy we have at LawProse, the 1926 edition, has no reference to the spelling of this word. But the 1973 edition recommends subpena and subpenaed. The change seems to have come sometime in the 1940s. The heyday for this spelling in all sorts of print sources was 1945 to 1955. Since then, it has dwindled. And in 1984 the GPO Style Manual (as it is abbreviated) changed its preference to the standard spelling subpoena.

So it all depends on when a given statute was enacted.

The midcentury idea, apparently, was to eliminate Latinate ligatures known as “digraphs.” (Some people mistakenly call them “diphthongs”: they’re actually digraphs—two vowels traditionally joined into a single character.) The tendency in American English has been to use spellings such as anesthetic (not anaesthetic), encyclopedia (not encyclopaedia), orthopedic (not orthopaedic), and penitentiary (not poenitentiary), etc.

Some words, though, are resistant. Aesthetic and subpoena are good examples. In 1943, as part of the anti-digraph wave, the hefty Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, in two volumes, listed its main entries under esthetic and subpena. These were poor predictions on the part of some very good lexicographers. Neither American English nor British English has adopted the reformed spellings.

But for a time, the GPO Style Manual adopted them both, so we’re left with some anomalous spellings in our statute books. That all changed in 1984. Shades of George Orwell.

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 856 (3d ed. 2011).

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LawProse Lesson #200: Which is standard: “toward” or “towards”?

Which is standard: toward or towards?

      In American English, toward has been the usual form in print sources since about 1900. Many usage authorities since then have expressed a strong preference for toward, without the final -s.

The s-less form of the word is consistent with analogous (though less common) directional words such as cityward, downward, forward, outward, seaward, shoreward, and westward. All these forms are standard in British English as well as American English.

But British English makes an exception with towards: since the mid-16th century, the literary convention in Britain has always been to prefer the plus-s form of the word.

So your preference should depend on which of the two major varieties of English you’re using. If you’re American, make it toward. To do otherwise is editorially untoward.

Further reading:
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed. 2009) (under “toward” and “Directional Words.”)

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: load, n.; lode.

load, n.; lode.

Although they have similar etymologies, their meanings have fully diverged. “Load” (in its basic senses) means “a quantity that can be carried at one time” or, by extension, “a burden” {a load of work} {a load off my mind}. “Lode” carries the narrow meaning “a deposit of ore,” as well as the figurative sense “a rich source or supply.”

The correct phrase, then, is “mother lode” (= an abundant supply), not “mother load.” Although dozens of headline writers have used “mother load” as a pun (usually in reference to pregnant women), some have fallen into true error — e.g.:

o “She worked as a computer programmer, but kept plugging away at the music. And finally, she hit the mother load [read 'mother lode'].” Tony Kiss, “Messina Never Gave Up Dream of Music Career,” Asheville Citizen-Times, 3 Nov. 1996, at F1.

o “This site is a mother load [read 'mother lode'] of investing and financial planning information.” Ted Sickinger, “Web Review,” Kansas City Star, 6 Apr. 1997, at F23.

For information about the Language-Change index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “I am convinced that books written mainly to make money do not usually make much, and hence when somebody asks me if he should not write textbooks to make a lot of money, I am tempted to suggest that he get a nice cushy job as a baby sitter to a half dozen juvenile delinquent morons. He may live longer, and he will probably die wealthier.” Charlton Laird, And Gladly Teche 217 (1970).

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LawProse Lesson #199: Persuasive openers.

Persuasive openers.

     Almost all poorly written motions and briefs have one thing in common: they get off to a bad start. They have no clear, boldly expressed point. They’re mushy.

How to fix that problem? Say on page one—in plain English that anyone can understand—what problem the court is to resolve, how, and why.

Page one. No turning of the page necessary. No ad hominem. No slighting of opponents. Just cold, hard logic—with a couple of salient facts.

Impossible, you say? Not at all. But it takes a good deal of know-how and technique.

If you need examples, get the Advanced Legal Writing & Editing coursebook by attending sometime this spring: we’re coming to a city near you. If you can’t, check out the third edition of The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts (2014). You’ll find dozens of compelling examples there.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: literally.


“Literally” = (1) with truth to the letter; or (2) exactly; according to the strict sense of the word or words. “Literally” in the sense “truly, completely” is a slipshod extension — e.g.: “Behavioralists and postbehavioralists alike, literally or figuratively, learn what they know of science from the natural sciences, from the outside.” (Read: “Behavioralists and post-behavioralists alike learn what they know of science from the natural sciences, from the outside.”)

When used for “figuratively,” where “figuratively” would not ordinarily be used, “literally” is distorted beyond recognition — e.g.: “For Chip Sullivan, former club professional turned PGA Tour pro, life literally [delete 'literally'] has been turned upside down.” Randy King, “PGA Life Different Than [read 'From'] Being Home on the Range,” Roanoke Times & World News, 15 Jan. 1997, at B1.

A New Yorker cartoon that appeared on 28 Feb. 1977 (p. 54), by Lorenz, had this funny bit of dialogue: “Confound it, Hawkins, when I said I meant that literally, that was just a figure of speech.”

Although Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary (1961) acknowledged that “literally” could be used to mean “in effect, virtually,” it didn’t record the complete reversal in sense that led “literally” to mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively.” This reversal appears to have been first recognized in the early 1970s.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Children who are born into homes of privilege, in the way of wealth, tradition, or education, become native speakers of what is popularly known as ‘good’ English; the linguist prefers to give it the non-committal name of ‘standard’ English. Less fortunate children become native speakers of ‘bad’ or ‘vulgar’ or, as the linguist prefers to call it, ‘non-standard’ English.” Leonard Bloomfield, Language 48 (1933).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: lip-sync, vb.; lip-synch.

lip-sync, vb.; lip-synch.

To lip-sync, of course, is to move one’s lips silently in synchronization with recorded vocals, whether one’s own or someone else’s.

Although the dictionaries are split between the “sync” and “synch” forms, the incontestable leader in print is “lip-sync” by a 2-to-1 ratio. But the agent noun is “lip-syncer,” pronounced anomalously with a hard “-c-”: /LiP-sink-uhr/.

Occasionally people misunderstand the phrase and write “lip-sing” e.g.: “‘This is where freshmen and seniors together do wacky performances and where teachers lip sing [read 'lip-sync'] in front of the students,’ Sullivan said.” Grace Camacho, “A Golden Birthday,” Orange County Register, 16 Nov. 2000, at 1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “The basic teaching of our schools, in reading and writing, in standard language and composition, is dominated still by educationists who, knowing nothing about our language, waste years of every child’s time, and leave our community semi-literate.” Leonard Bloomfield, “Twenty-One Years of the Linguistic Society” (1946), in A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology 311, 314 (Charles F. Hockett ed., abridged ed. 1987).

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