Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A tiresome rant on grammar but you get a free DFW essay out of it

So, the other day I'm at the gym over at the U and one of the undergrads who works there is all excited about his LSAT score and can't wait to apply to law school. I ask him how he feels about grammar and diagramming sentences, and he looks at me like I'm some kind of walking non-sequitur because what he's really good at is arguing.

Picture 1.pngIf only I'd had a copy of yesterday's Flores-Figueroa v. United States in my pocket. This was reported under such headlines as "Justices Limit Use of Identity Theft Law in Immigration Cases" and "High court removes tool for deporting illegals." Those are, of course, much more grabby than the more accurate, "Court rules adverb 'knowingly' modifies entire predicate and its object." Few under 35 would have any idea what that headline meant. (The late, great David Foster Wallace explains why in this brilliant piece that takes a little while to download because it's a pretty big file but is completely worth it.) I can't imagine what they would make of the crux of Justice Breyer's reasoning, which was this:
In ordinary English, where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as knowingly) that modifies the transitive verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object as set forth in the sentence.
Dismaying as it is, a world where judges and lawyers don't have a command of grammar—the kind you get from diagramming hundreds of sentences—is anarchic.

The Court's other decisions yesterday would probably reinforce the point (if I had a really good reason to slog through them) because they all involve "statutory interpretation," which is legalese for grammar. Two are about civil procedure issues—a remand of state claims to state court is appealable even though the statute says it isn't and the circuit courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review a denial of a stay of arbitration. One is about liability under CERCLA. (Shell won; that's as far as I want to get into that one.)


Anonymous said...

Rick, your grammar talk is very upsetting, people should be precise so that everybody understands what they want understood...but, the idea that a lawyer should have good grammar is silly because we know it does not work.

Give me that undergrad any day who is willing to agree that 'if you take me to lunch at Joe's, I will be your "special friend"' any day of the week over the Ricardo Basques student who wants to put a bunch of idiotic, grammatically perfect clauses in the agreement.

Anonymous said...

Rick, you are posting too fast, the jury issue in the Liberty 6 case is interesting and merits discussion on the blog...the idea is to instigate an exchange of ideas. You don't get points per post.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting Rick. Your posts are far more entertaining than David's.

Anonymous said...

I think it is incorrect to say that "statutory interpretation" is legalese for grammar because that presumes that the legislators who drafted the statutes had a mastery of grammar and thus infused some special meaning by their perfect use of syntax. That presumption is just not accurate, thus "statutory interpretation" is more than just diagramming sentences.

Elizabeth O'Brien said...

Thanks for your interesting post. I always like to see other grammarians who love sentence diagramming.

I love diagramming sentences so much that I have a website devoted to it.

:) Elizabeth