Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2012
The Legal Writer
Right as Rain:
Remarkable and Revealing "R" Words
By Suzanne E. Rowe

I was meandering through The New York Times one Sunday, when a possible misspelling made me reach smugly for my favorite dictionary. Was the usage in The Times “racked by pain” correct? Or should it have been “wracked by pain”?

I’ll omit a long digression into why I reached for my dictionary rather than opening my laptop. And I’ll omit a longer digression into the multitude of writing, editing and proofing mistakes I often find in formerly well written newspapers and magazines. On the way to answering my question, I took a much more pleasant — and much longer — digression through the “R” section of my dictionary. Here are some of the gems I discovered.

As all lawyers, paralegals and legal secretaries know, the preposition re means “in the matter of” and is often used in headings to introduce the topic of documents from memos to letters. What we might not all know is that it shouldn’t be elevated to word status. Certainly, re is gaining in popularity and acceptance. But when it’s used in a sentence, re can feel like a pompous lawyerism, an excess bit of legalese. My dictionary suggests that in many instances “concerning or about would be just as clear (and less likely to annoy).” The parenthetical is just one more reason that I love this dictionary!

As even nonlegally trained readers know, the prefix re- has a range of meanings. Here are a few examples: to make anew (as in reactivate); return (as in restore and revert); withdraw (as in recluse); and extra force (as in redouble). The modern prefix comes from the Latin re- and red- prefixes, which mean “again” or “back.”

The question is when the word with the re- prefix is hyphenated. The current tendency is no hyphenation: reacquaint and reconsiderare two examples. Sometimes, though, a hyphen can be helpful to avoid confusion in meaning. Consider recreate (to have fun) and re-create (to create again). Another example pair in that vein is recover (get well) and re-cover (cover again). A hyphen can also avoid some unsightly spellings like reerect; the hyphenated re-erect looks so much better.

Recur vs. Reoccur
My dictionary suggests leaving out the “oc” – noting that recur is preferred over reoccur, and recurrence is preferred over reoccurrence.

The interesting gem I uncovered about reason isn’t the word itself, but the company it keeps (and, in my world, shouldn’t). I can still hear Mrs. Doyle at GHS telling me to leave out “because” when I said, “The reason is because…” That was an era when grammar teachers didn’t have to give reasons; she said it, I learned it. My dictionary offers a reason: “because” is redundant with “the reason.” For the sake of full disclosure, my dictionary doesn’t say that using “because” is a mistake, and the dictionary’s use of passive voice (noting simply an “objection is made” to “the reason is because”) suggests that reasonable minds might differ. For the sake of Mrs. Doyle, I will continue to prefer “the reason is that….”

Refute vs. Repudiate
Sarah Palin, defender of apple pie and traditional marriage, made these words into an unholy union with refudiate. But even those of us who don’t try to match Shakespeare in creating new words have trouble telling the traditional ones apart.

To refute is to prove something to be false, to prove someone to be wrong. It requires active argument.

To repudiate is to reject something as baseless, to refuse to acknowledge something. One need not engage in an argument to repudiate a false idea; one could simply ignore it or turn away from it.

Admitting that language changes and new definitions become accepted, my favorite dictionary notes that refute has recently developed into a synonym of “deny.” Curmudgeons even more traditional than I am (bless you all!) reject this degradation of the language. I hope this special class of curmudgeon is long gone before refudiate takes a place of honor as a true word meaning generally the same as “deny,” sort of.

Rein vs. Reign
A rein is a strap used to guide a horse. The word is most often used in the plural form, reins, as in “Hand me the reins, and I’ll lead your horse back to the barn.” Reign is the period during which a queen, king or other sovereign rules. Note the similar spelling in reign and sovereign.

The challenges arise with idiomatic phrases. A reign of terror is a period of bloodshed, perhaps best exemplified by the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But free rein and rein in are literally drawn from the word that deals with horses, even when we’d like for them to apply to judges (give them free rein in sentencing or rein in their power?) or politicians (give them free rein in raising and spending campaign dollars or rein them in?).

For all of my scientist friends, I will note that my favorite dictionary does explain concisely the difference between Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. But I’m not about to explain those little gems here.

Repulsive vs. Repellant
These two are quite close in meaning, although repulsive expresses stronger feelings. Repulsive means “arousing intense distaste or disgust: a repulsive smell.” Repellant means “causing disgust or distaste: the idea was slightly repellant.” Of course, repellant is also an ability to repel things like water and mosquitoes. If repulsive is stronger than repellant, can I buy “insect repulsive” rather than just “insect repellant”?

Request vs. Ask
Request is a kinder, gentler version of ask, so it’s appropriate in more polite or formal settings. The little gem I uncovered confirms my view that the use of to with request sounds a bit awkward. First note that the verb ask sounds fine when followed by either that or to: “Let’s ask that the sentence be reduced.” “Let’s ask to have the sentence reduced.” But the verb request sounds a bit better with that: “We request that the judge reduce the sentence.” (Contrast with “We request the judge to reduce the sentence.”)

This gem concerns pronunciation. In the United States, we tend to stress the first syllabus (RE-search), while across the pond British English stresses the second syllable (re-SEARCH). While I do love British accents, and although some British curmudgeons are unhappy with this development, our usage is becoming more common over there and is generally now accepted.

Restaurant vs. Restaurateur
Before I explain the gem here, take another quick look at the two words: restaurant and restaurateur.

For years, I’ve assumed an extra “n” in restaurateur, starting with restaurant and tacking –eur on the end. My result – “restauranteur” – isn’t actually a word. (Maybe I shouldn’t be so smug about dear Sarah making up words.)

The word Reverend is used as a title, as in The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. While the leading The is often omitted, careful writers should include it. Remembering that the word reverend started its life as an adjective helps. Think of “the respected,” “the wise” or “the kind,” and you’ll feel the need for the article the in “the reverend.”

Our experts in criminal law already know this gem. Technically, to rob requires using fear of harm in order to take something from someone. So no one robs an empty house, as there’s no one home to feel fear of harm. The situation of taking something from an empty house is burglary or theft. (I welcome our experts in criminal law to send lengthy letters to the editor explaining robbery, burglary, theft, larceny and stealing, all in the context of Oregon law. My article is limited to the “r” word in that list.)

Rack vs. Wrack
Of course, in my long digression through the “R” section of my dictionary, I also found the answer to my initial question.

When discussing a frame for holding or storing things (for example, a magazine rack or a spice rack), the only correct choice is rack. And the historical torture device on which past friends were stretched for current transgressions is also a rack. But the verb form can include a leadoff “w,” for reasons that even my favorite dictionary doesn’t explain. The result is that figurative verbs derived from the torture device can be spelled with or without the extra “w” at the beginning. So one can be either “racked by pain” or “wracked by pain” and either “racked by guilt” or “wracked by guilt.” While the option means that I didn’t need to “rack my brain” or “wrack my brain” as I read the morning paper, look what fun it caused!

(By the way, “right as rain” means that all is well — fitting for this time of year in Oregon.)

Sources: The New Oxford American Dictionary (2d ed. 2005) (aka “my favorite dictionary”).


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.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2012 Suzanne E. Rowe

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