|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2010|
Two More Years with Legal Writers
By Suzanne E. Rowe
To my great and continuing amazement, many readers of the Bulletin actually read articles in this column every month. Equally amazing is that a sizeable number of readers have comments that they share with me via e-mail. These comments range from thanks to outrage, and they include humor, tips and corrections.
As The Legal Writer ends its fourth year, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite letters from readers. I’m keeping them anonymous, as they were written to me privately. Of course, the Bulletin encourages letters to the editor, and if you write to the editor (rather than the author) you can see your name in print underneath your very own letter.
I get many ideas for articles from readers. Often these messages begin “My boss just doesn’t understand that ….” To me, that sounds like a shot in an ongoing office battle. I run for my grammar guides, and many hours later I have an article that will provide someone with ammunition. After one such e-mail inspired article, “Which Is That?” (July 2010), I received the following:
As I was clearing off my desk, I picked up the latest bar magazine with your article on “that.” I took it to my boss and told him we were famous. He thought it was very funny. And after he read it, he even admitted that you and I have a point. He said that he stands corrected.
Now doesn’t that make me happy!
Grammar and Football
I don’t weigh in on every office fight over grammar, and I’ve declined the offer to be an expert witness on word usage. I was amused, though, when one reader pointed out that Oregon State University’s media guide this year misused the plural possessive form of “Rodgers.” For the unenlightened, OSU’s football teams boasts a pair of brothers, James and Jacquizz Rodgers. The clever title of the media guide was “Welcome to the Rodgers’ Neighborhood.”
The reader and I agreed that proper usage would have been “Welcome to the Rodgerses’ Neighborhood.” (See “Perplexing Plurals and Possessives” from January 2007.) But that extra syllable would kill the impact, as we all know of “Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood.” Besides, selling football tickets is far more important than promoting correct grammar. Or is it?
While I sometimes make people happy with my pronouncements on proper writing, I sometimes provoke anguish. In “Word Choices IV” (May 2009), I dared say that nauseated and nauseouswere “practically synonymous these days.” I continued: “Formerly, nauseatedmeant you felt sick, while the thing that made you feel that way was nauseous. The strict definitions caused problems when you said ‘I feel nauseous.’ Technically, you were admitting that you made someone else feel sick.” Oh, my, was I taken to task for that!
Dashed! My hopes and dreams have been dashed. I saw the subheading “Nauseated vs. Nauseous” and I thought I’d see a rousing defense of the proper use of nauseous as limited solely to causing nausea, but no…
Am I too pedantic? Have my years of correcting younger lawyers been for naught? How many copies of your article will I receive in my mailbox marked “SEE???!!!”
How can the “strict definitions cause problems”? It’s the MISUSE that causes problems!
I’ll dismantle my soapbox and go home.
I sent this reader a soothing message. Given the intensity of emotions expressed, I should have sent chocolates. I have certainly gone back to teaching my students the difference between the two words.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing The Legal Writer is making grammar seem fun. I love poking at the way we all talk and write, and I’m overjoyed when someone writes back about my attempts to be funny. Here’s a favorite e-mail message:
Every time I come across one of your columns in the bar Bulletin I find myself laughing out loud. I’m going to make a point of reading all of them!
Sometimes a reader takes humor into his own hands. I still laugh when I read this e-mail from a reader who appreciated (and intentionally ignored) my advice about professional e-mails, beginning with a brilliant misstatement of my name.
Dear Dr. Susie Woe:
Just a short electronic note, without using any paper or fancy stationery at all, to say how much I enjoyed your article in the current OSB Bulletin about etiquette. The problem is that if I didn’t have appalling etiquette I’d have no etiquette at all, and I know my peers feel the same way. Frankly, I think we should be able to Tweet our job applications. After all, we all are very busy doing stuff and all the cover letters and resumes and applications are just too much to deal with and very stressful and boring anyway. Like punkuation and stuff like that. Besides, Tweeting job applications to employers gives us the chance to demonstrate just how creative yet informative we can be in 140 characters. Bet President Obama couldn’t Tweet his State of the Union address — ha!
Yes, that one broke just about every rule I offered in “Appalling Etiquette” (January 2010).
One reader responded to my etiquette article by asking whether it is still considered polite for law firms to acknowledge receipt of a job application.
It appears as though the majority of employers in Portland no longer contact job applicants if they don’t receive an offer. This has obviously left many of my friends and classmates very frustrated with the process and the firms. It seems like a professional courtesy to respond with at least an e-mail, but it seems as though most places don’t have the time/interest.
My article lambasted applicants for lapses in professionalism, but assumed that employers were responding with appropriate courtesy. Instead of asking forgiveness for that mistake, may I ask offices to consider the value of a kindly worded e-mail to each applicant who didn’t make your cut, but may one day represent your opponent? Or hold high office? Or marry your child?
Sometimes readers have tips to offer back to me. I’m always eager to learn from you, so feel free to send me your ideas. Here’s one, expanding on my article “Running On?” (July 2009), in which I suggested the mnemonic FANBOYS for remembering which conjunctions can join sentences with a simple comma (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
This one is to help you remember the adverbs that follow semicolons that need a comma. The thing to remember is that people are usually THIRTy or older before they care about semicolons and commas. (The words are thus, however, instead, rather, therefore.)
I’m going to suggest to my students that they use the mnemonic to remember which adverbs need a semi-colon to join two complete sentences. Here’s an example: I don’t have all the good ideas in the grammar world; rather, my readers are great sources of enlightenment.
Sometimes I’m just flat out wrong. It hurts to be wrong, and it hurts even more to be wrong in such a public forum as the Bulletin. The only redeeming point in receiving e-mails like the one below is that I have the opportunity to correct articles before they are posted on the Bulletin’s website for posterity. This reader pointed out — ever so gently — that my article Perfect Tenses (October 2009) was not perfect.
I too am a grammar nerd and very much enjoy reading your column in the bar Bulletin. I think, however, there may be an error in this month’s column. In the middle of the third column, you indicate that “I have thanked my colleague for her help” is in the past perfect tense. I believe this sentence is actually in the present perfect tense. Please enlighten me if I am mistaken! Cheers!
Nope. You’re right; I’m wrong. The online version in the Bulletin’s archives has been corrected. Cheers back to you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she is a Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Fellow. She directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send letters to the Bulletineditor at email@example.com.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2010 Suzanne E. Rowe