If 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.)