Writing in a Brave New World
By Suzanne E. Rowe
Language changes over time. If it didn’t, I’d be writing this article in Shakespearean English. Or Greek. Or Gorilla.
Written language changes more slowly than spoken language, which tends to be more casual. Eventually, yesterday’s casual conversation becomes today’s written prose.
Those of us who appreciate the finer points of written language pound our chests and tear out our hair at every unacceptable modification of English as we know it. We railed against the split infinitive — until Star Trek convinced us “to boldly go” where no grammarian had gone before. We insisted on the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated” — then, somehow, the new world order quit making us feel so sick.
This article is about the wave of changes that I see on the horizon. Each one makes me pound my chest and tear out my hair. But, deep in my soul, I know that these changes are coming and there’s nothing I can do but sound a futile alarm.
(Note to students: The future has not yet arrived in my class.)
Well Will Be a Prefix
English loves smooshing words together. Two words hook up around a hyphen, and before long the two become one. Remember when we first worked “on line”? Then we worked “on-line,” and now we’re all “online.”
The word most likely to be joined illicitly in the future is well ; it’s already begun the fatal hookup. Not too long ago, we wrote “well considered arguments.” Now the hyphen has crept in and those are “well-considered arguments.” How long can it be before the phrase is “wellconsidered arguments”? Think of well as a prefix in the following new words: wellknown , wellreasoned and wellrespected . Eventually the extra “l” will disappear, leaving us with welknown , welreasoned and welrespected . Don’t laugh. This change is coming!
Symbols Will Prevail
Language will continue to become more casual, as writing takes place exclusively online. Contractions will reach new heights (or depths, for those of us who remember when contractions weren’t considered formal enough for legal writing). Business communication between attorneys and clients will be reduced efficiently to a few symbols that can be read from the handheld devices that will have completely replaced bulky laptops. Who will even remember lugging around such a huge, heavy device?
“TY” will not be a name, but the universally accepted indication of appreciation, replacing the outdated “Thank you.” The long disclaimer at the end of attorney communications will be replaced with symbols that link to the firm’s website. So say goodbye to the paragraphs that now end your email messages: “This email message is confidential and for the sole use of its intended recipients. This message contains information that is likely privileged as attorney work product or otherwise legally exempt from disclosure. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Your email will simply conclude with “@F#1.” Yes, that seems vaguely obscene, but as you’ll see next, obscenity will no longer be a problem.
No Words Will Be Dirty
Forty years from now, there will be no dirty words. Look at history if you’re not convinced.
Forty years ago, George Carlin listed seven dirty words that could not be said on television or radio. Today most of those words are either acceptable or passé. The New Yorker now drops f-bombs gratuitously. In another 40 years, we’ll have completely let down our professional guard against unacceptable language.
But for the next 40 years, I intend to counter every student use of suck — as in “my paper sucks” — with something like the following: “I agree that your analysis is weak, but in this setting we should find more specific words to describe its weaknesses.” Yes, this exchange actually took place in my office.
Verbs Will Disappear
Following the lead of our erudite radio and television media, verbs will disappear. In case you already don’t miss the missing verbs, they’re in brackets in the following sentences:
The stock market [is] down 23 points this hour.
This just [came] in from the Washington bureau.
The defendant [had been] arrested on charges of aggravated manslaughter.
Mike [is] calling from Phoenix.
Pronouns Will Be Unisex
Future writers will follow today’s speakers and use the word they for all third person pronouns, obviating the need for he, she or it. Some writers will make that change to avoid gendered pronouns. After being overcome by the challenges of rewriting sentences to avoid he and she in awkward situations, these writers will reach slyly for the unisex word they. Other writers will be too lazy to remember that “a company” is a single thing, which is properly denoted by the singular pronoun it . Completely crystal clear sentences like the following will be commonplace.
The company hired John and Nancy because they believe in the potential of new ideas. They especially like John’s new technique that they proved led to lower costs and Nancy’s innovative ideas that they developed in graduate school.
Here’s the translation in “old” English:
The company hired John and Nancy because it believes in the potential of new ideas. The company especially likes John’s new technique that he proved led to lower costs and Nancy’s innovative ideas that she developed in graduate school.
Comma Sprinklers Will Replace Rules
I’ll end with the mundane aspects of punctuation: use of commas will become so random that we might as well use comma sprinklers, the grammatical parallel to salt shakers.
• Comma, because
Within a few years, even careful writers will often include a comma before the word because. The reason will be the ever persuasive “Well, I pause there.” Please take a moment to enjoy these comma-free — and correct — sentences while you still can:
I enjoy reading novels on vacation because they help me forget about work.
The client liked the law office because the attorneys there were so kind.
• A comma for two
Commas will also be used to separate two items in a list. Just slip a comma before the word and in each of the following sentences, and you’ll be living in the future. (Yes, I realize that the future has arrived in some formerly well written publications, including The New Yorker . I cancelled my subscription. The random commas were even worse than the f-bombs.)
The author’s writing was simple and clear.
I met with the client and told her that the case was going well.
• No Oxford comma!
Of course, in the future we’ll be spared the “Oxford comma,” the oft-lamented, useless signal before the word and in a list of three or more items. Say goodbye to the lovely comma just after “white” in this description of our flag.
The American flag is red, white, and blue.
This unfortunate turn of future events strikes me as odd because the Oxford comma will simply have meandered from the end of a list of multiple things to a list of two things, where ostensibly it is more urgently needed.
The Canadian flag is red, and white.
Whew! That comma really helped me differentiate between red and white!
In the Oxford comma-free future, the following sentence will not cause anyone a moment’s pause.
“Liz, Anne and I wrote to Nick last week, but he still has not responded.”
Hmmm… Maybe the reader will pause to wonder whether the statement was delivered to Liz, explaining to her that Anne and I wrote to Nick last week and since we haven’t heard back maybe Liz should contact him. Or maybe the statement was delivered to everyone else, explaining that others should contact Nick because three of us (Liz, Anne, and I) have tried to no avail.
While we are pondering the future randomness of commas, I wonder whether the following statement of appreciation will raise eyebrows about the grateful speaker’s famous parents:
“I’d like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”
In the future, writers will save lots of time by not bothering to learn pesky rules of grammar and punctuation. Of course, future readers will be wasting time re-reading masses of fuzzy phrases that mean something only in the writer’s head.
Me? Won’t bother me, bc by then ill be retired & lounging on a beach in MEX : )
Editors’ note: The Bulletin extends heart-felt congratulations to professor Rowe on her receipt of the 2012 OSB President’s Public Leadership Award — for her treasure trove of writing contributions that have benefited legal writers and readers month in and month out since 2006. We know that our readers rely on her wit and wisdom in an ongoing quest to improve their work (as do we). We couldn’t be more pleased
that this year’s award has gone to our favorite curmudgeon she was chosen for this honor. :-)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment for supporting her work.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2012 Suzanne E. Rowe