From the Mail Bag:
Responses to Readers
By Suzanne E. Rowe
A shareholder from a big, fancy law firm wrote recently to point out several mistakes in one of my articles, including a run-on sentence and a misplaced modifier. Then he noted the challenges of explaining the absence of parallelism to young writers. He concluded his message with this question: “Do you like getting letters like this, or do you find it annoying?”
My response: “I love getting letters like this! They show me that people care about writing!” Given that I enjoy ripping writing to shreds (and looking for humor in the rubble), I’d better be able to enjoy watching my own writing get ripped (and laugh louder than anyone). Of course, the shareholder at the big, fancy law firm was very kind in pointing out the mistakes; his tone inspired a new article about how to respond appropriately to errors in writing.
I truly enjoy hearing from readers. Because I write most of the articles for this column late at night, alone, at my dining room table, I can forget that anyone other than the OSB editors will read the articles. This delusion means I’m quite shocked when my husband says that one of his cycling friends liked a recent article or a judge tells me he saves all of them. (Really?)
Your letters keep me connected, corrected, focused, inspired and entertained. Here are a few from the past two years.
Sometimes I can get carried away with ideas, so I count on readers to keep me in line. I had great fun writing the article “Verboten: Vacuous Verbiage on Valentine’s Day” (February 2014). But a reader pulled me back to earth with this note:
I am newly retired after 35 years as a lawyer. As I read the “Verboten” piece, I had to check with my long-practicing lawyer husband as to whether he had seen some of the V words in any legal documents, law books, or, indeed literature in English (or French). Neither of us recalls ever seeing some of the words you noted and hope that we never will.
Oops. In my fun, I got carried away with words that are fascinating in general, when I should probably stay focused on words more likely to appear in legal documents (or at least in French literature). I appreciated this reminder.
Another “Verboten” reader seconded my confusion about one of the words I played with in the article; I always like knowing that I’m not the only writer on the planet with a particular problem.
Your review of the word vouchsafe caught my eye. I have to admit that I have read this word many times, never really understanding what it meant, even after consulting your favorite dictionary and mine. I find it used a lot in books written between 1875 and 1925 (from Stowe to Stevenson to Steinbeck). So, I found great comfort from your Yul Brynner “It’s a puzzlement” approach to this word.
Ah, a kindred spirit. I assume he also liked the musical (“The King and I”), from which the quote came.
I’m impressed when readers readily provide lists of examples suitable for an article, especially when I’ve spent hours finding suitable examples myself. This was the case for “Autoantonyms: Words that Mean Their Opposites” (December 2013). One reader shared a list that went beyond those I found only after consulting multiple online lists:
Over the years, I’ve kept a list of autoantonyms, though I didn’t know the word till I read your article. Besides those that Charles Rembar mentioned in The Law of the Land (cleave and peer), I came up with bad, hoi polloi, ozone, oversight, public school and vessel. Most of the ones on my list are easy to understand — a few involve a slang meaning versus the standard meaning (e.g., bad), but the one that may be harder to figure out is vessel. There are both drinking vessels and sailing vessels. In a drinking vessel, the water is inside the vessel; in a sailing vessel, the water is outside the vessel.
My favorite from this list is ozone, which Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says is both “a form of oxygen that is found in a layer“high in the earth’s atmosphere” and “healthy fresh air especially near the sea.” Last I checked, the sea was not high in the earth’s atmosphere, so where exactly is the ozone?
Another reader both added an autoantonym I wish I’d thought of and sparked an idea for a new column with a second suggestion:
I think words like biweekly or semiannually could be added to your list, as they sometimes mean twice during the period and sometimes mean every other period. As an example, biweekly could mean twice per week or once every other week.
I do wish that I’d included biweekly in my list. While it might not technically be an autoantonym (twice a week isn’t the opposite of every two weeks), it frequently causes confusion. I think, though, that semiannual has one meaning: every six months (which is the same as twice per year). People frequently misuse it, so I should try to help. This correspondence inspired an article about number words. I’m still working on it, late at night, alone, at my dining room table.
Oscar Mayer’s Subjunctive
A former student raised a question, I think mostly for my amusement:
My mother-in-law, the proud owner of a miniature Dachshund, would like to know whether said dog (“Ancho”) wishes he “was” or “were” an Oscar Mayer wiener. Can you help?
After consulting zero dictionaries or style manuals, I concluded that Ancho wishes he “were” an Oscar Mayer wiener. Because he is a beloved pet, he will never become lunch meat for a kindergartener. Thus, his desire contradicts reality and the subjunctive is required. For a quick review of the subjunctive, see “Wishful Thinking: If the Subjunctive Were Easy” (August/September 2013).
Here’s a message sparked by my particularly erudite explanation in “Future Shock: Writing in a Brave New World”(December 2012):
I had to laugh at your retort for the word suck. My high school physics teacher also fielded a steady stream of complaints about homework assignments from our class: “This sucks!” I have always remembered (fondly) her response: “Nothing sucks. It’s all differential pressure!”
I’m still laughing.
As a general rule, I do not enter debates — whether at the office water cooler or as part of formal litigation — about the meaning of words. About a year ago, I broke my rule and blithely offered my best guess to an attorney who was mired in a water cooler dispute with a co-worker. My best guess cost him the bet, and he had to take the co-worker to lunch. That convinced me never, ever to enter another debate. And I’m not even going to tell you what the question was.
This month marks the completion of eight years of The Legal Writer. Raise your hand if you remember the first article: “Unblocking Writer’s Block: Moving Ideas from Head to Page” (October 2006). Fortunately, when I’ve suffered writer’s block in the past few years, I’ve been able to rely on my colleagues Elizabeth Ruiz Frost and Megan McAlpin for articles that let me laugh while learning about our wonderful language.
Please note: The editors of OSB welcome formal, publishable letters about any article in the Bulletin. Those are fine, but the messages I’ve shared here seem more like chats with friends I might not have met yet. Thank you for reading. And thank you for writing.
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. To suggest topics for future articles, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She notes that she lightly edited some letters due to space constraints.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe