This is the fourth in a series of postings of material drawn from our forthcoming, Creative Commons licensed, open coursebook on Intellectual Property. It is about lawyers and language.
Persnickety Linguistic Quibble
This is curmudgeonly but we cannot help ourselves. In our opinion, Computer Associates v. Altai is an excellent opinion, a brilliant example of the judicial craft. That is something that is really hard to achieve. But it is marred by three easily avoided linguistic errors, one of them serious. See if you can find them.
Why fuss about this? We agree that the substance is what matters. But there is a lesson to be learned here too. Your clients are hiring someone to guide them through a confusing maze of legal principles. If you cannot spell the word “principles” their faith – and that of the judge, partner or general counsel for whom you work – may justifiably be shaken. Word’s spellcheck will be no help because “principals” is a word, it just isn’t the word you want. Also, “ascribe” and “refute” may not mean what you think they mean. You do not “ascribe” to a set of views, you “subscribe” to them (though you can reasonably “ascribe” persnickety linguistic tendencies to the editors of this book) and you do not “refute” the theory of evolution merely by disagreeing with it. (“Reject,” “deny” “seek to rebut the arguments of,” “criticize,” “denounce” – such a rich language.) We’d go further and point out that “advocate” does not require, and should not be coupled with, the preposition “for” (he “advocated the decriminalization of marijuana,” he did not “advocate for” its decriminalization, though he could have “argued for” it) but that one may be a lost battle already. (C.f. the song 27 Jennifer’s. Is she the “one he has been seeking for”? No she is the one he has been “searching for.” Or “seeking” (which contains within it the “for” preposition.) Let’s not get started on subjunctives.) While we are here, Insure your car. Ensure that your sentences are correctly framed. Finally, you do not “take a different tact,” (“tack”) nor do you “feel badly about” something, unless you are particularly incompetent at the feeling arts. (“Bad.”) If people pay you to use words, use them well.
OK, thanks for indulging us on that. For 95% of you it was annoying, we know and we’ve made those mistakes ourselves – probably in this very book – but 5% of you will stop doing it and that makes it all worthwhile.