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Tuning Your Language


Until well into the 20th century, there were traditionally thought to be only three professions: medicine, the ministry, and the law. Strange, isn’t it, to think that teachers, executives, accountants, scientists, and engineers were not considered professionals? That’s the old‑school view: only doctors, the clergy, and lawyers belonged to what were more specifically called the “learned professions.”

In more up-to-date terms, what distinguishes a calling we now consider a profession—please refrain from jokes about the “oldest profession”—is prolonged specialized training in a body of abstract knowledge. Professional training leads to the mastery of a skill involving a strong intellectual component. Today any occupation that involves such training is inarguably considered a profession.

If you aspire to be a lawyer, you’re aspiring to a profession whose sole equipment is language. We speak and write professionally. That’s all. We have no other tools but words.

Which means that if you want to do well as a lawyer, you need to be really good with words. You need an ample vocabulary, and you must know how to use it effectively. A lawyer’s using a wrong word is akin to a musician’s playing a wrong note.

All this might seem obvious—until you realize that most people in your life, people who speak to you all the time, aren’t particularly effective users of language. Let’s face it: we’re surrounded by linguistic slobs. If you’re not highly conscious of language—your own and others’—the prevalent sloppiness and imprecision will affect (not impact) how you speak and write.

“The law,” as Professor William Prosser (of torts fame) once wrote, “is principally a literary profession.” True. And the particular brand of language in America with a significant literary heritage is Standard English, known also as “educated English.” It is the English traditionally used by educated speakers. This is concededly a political matter in part: in every culture, the standard language is the type traditionally used by people in power. Perhaps that’s distasteful in our society, but it’s reality. But at least Standard English is available to everyone who cares to learn it. The commentator Barbara Wallraff noted in 2000: “Deviations from standard English, or what people take to be deviations, are more likely to arouse fury, pity, or scorn than admiration for the deviator’s individuality.”

So what differentiates standard from nonstandard English?

I’ll give you 30 indicators. Some will surprise you. Memorize them all. If you doubt me, look up the point in a respected usage book. See what the authorities say. In the list at left, the asterisk is used (as in standard linguistic practice) to note departures from Standard English.

Why memorize them? So you can start cultivating better habits. That way, you’ll be taken seriously in job interviews. You may get a foot in the door. But if you use the unrefined phrases, you are more likely, in the words of the linguist Graham Wilson, to be considered “vulgar, uneducated, or simply rustic.”

There’s good news, though. Your feelings won’t be hurt. Why? Because no one will tell you. You’ll never know why you weren’t hired.

Right: I feel bad.
Wrong: *I feel badly.

Right: I feel good. (This means “I feel contented.”)

Right: I feel well. (This means “I feel healthy.”)

Right: Just between you and me.
Wrong: *Just between you and I.

Right: He expected Helen and me to help him.
Wrong: *He expected Helen and I to help him.

Right: I couldn’t care less.
Wrong: *I could care less.

Right: I’m going to lie down.
*I’m going to lay down.

Right: Yesterday I lay out in the sun
Wrong: *Yesterday I laid out in the sun.

Right: Many times I have lain out in the sun.
Wrong: *Many times I have laid out in the sun.

Right: I played well.
Wrong: *I played good.

Right: I’m doing well.
Wrong: *I’m doing good.

Right: Where are you?
Wrong: *Where are you at?

Right: If I had been there . . . .
Wrong: *If I had have been there . . . .

Right: I’m a lawyer; as such, I have fiduciary duties.
Wrong: I’ve been hired on the case; *as such, I have fiduciary duties.

Right: The letter was sent by accident.
Wrong: The letter was sent *on accident.

Right: I wish I were smarter.
Wrong: *I wish I was smarter.

Right: Learning grammar is more fun than learning algebra.
Wrong: Learning grammar is *funner than learning algebra.

Right: I could have done it.
Wrong: *I could of done it.

Right: in regard to.
Wrong: *in regards to.

Right: fewer items.
Wrong: *less items.

Right: two pairs of shoes.
Wrong: *two pair of shoes.

Right: Anyway, he denied it.
Wrong: *Anyways, he denied it.

Right: He was undoubtedly guilty.
Wrong: He was *undoubtably guilty.

Right: preventive.
Wrong: *preventative.

Right: There are lots of reasons.
Wrong: *There’s lots of reasons.

Right: as best she can.
Wrong: *as best as she can.

Right: regardless or irrespective.
Wrong: *irregardless.

Right: smaller number of people.
Wrong: *smaller amount of people.

Right: mischievous.
Wrong: *mischievious.



Vol. 40 No. 8

Bryan Garner BRYAN A. GARNER is distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University and lecturer in law at the University of Texas School of Law. He is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many books, including Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008), both cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia.

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