Monthly Archives: February 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court feuds over the possessive form of singular nouns!

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chief Justice John Roberts vowed to create a more cohesive United States Supreme Court.  A noble goal.  But despite his best efforts, the Court remains bitterly divided over a crucial national issue:  whether to add an apostrophe-s when creating the possessive form of a singular noun ending in “s.”  Many people struggle with this issue; including, it seems, those writing for the nation’s highest court.

The full scope of the Court’s feud was displayed in Kansas v. Marsh.  There, three justices took three different approaches to the issue.

Justice Thomas added only an apostrophe without any additional “s” whenever creating the possessive form of Kansas.  Thus, he wrote “Kansas’ sentencing statute provides . . . .”  (Presumably, he would also write, “Justice Thomas’ opinion.”)

But Justice Souter, in dissent, adhered to the practice of always adding apostrophe-s when creating the possessive form of a singular noun ending in “s.”  So he wrote “Kansas’s sentencing statute provides . . . .”

And Justice Scalia—not usually a pragmatist—adopted a flexible approach, adding an apostrophe-s to some words but not to others.  A close examination of Scalia’s opinion suggests that the justice focused on pronunciation, adding an apostrophe-s in instances where the “s” was preceded by a hard consonant sound.

Rarely does the Court so openly reveal its deepest internal conflicts.  But, who is right?

Well, here is what the guidebook published by the Society for the Preservation of the English Language and Literature says about apostrophes:

Use both the apostrophe and the s to form the possessive of a singular noun, even if the noun ends in s, x, or z.  Examples: Jones’s house, the dog’s bone, the boss’s daughter, Fritz’s car, the fox’s den. Exceptions are allowed for ancient proper names (Example: Aristophanes’ work) and words ending in two or more sibilants (Example: for goodness’ sake). Not all publications follow this style, but it is recommended by most authorities.

As you can see, SPELL follows Justice Souter’s practice of adding an apostrophe-s in nearly all instances.  As does the Scribe.  And as noted by the SPELL guidebook, most authorities on the subject recognize only two types of singular nouns where it is acceptable to omit the apostrophe-s:  biblical or ancient names such as Jesus, Moses, or Sophocles, and nouns formed from plurals, such as General Motors.  In all other instances, the possessive should be created by adding an apostrophe-s.

That is all for now.

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Squib: writing simply takes time.

Here are more thoughts on writing simply, and how it takes time to do so. 

From Blaise Pascal

I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

From Henry David Thoreau:

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.   

From Marcus T. Cicero:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

From Karl Friedrich Gauss:

You know that I write slowly. This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length.

From Friedrich Nietzsche:

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.

From François Felelon:

The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.

From Mark Twain:

If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today.  If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.

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What can “Pirates of the Caribbean” teach us about simplicity?

Today’s tip comes from the 2003 movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Now, you are probably wondering what a movie based on Spanish and Portuguese sailing legends and folklore could offer writers.  Simplicity.  Consider the following exchange between Captain Barbossa and Elizabeth Swann:

Elizabeth:  Captain Barbossa, I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal.

Barbossa:  There are a lot of long words in there, Miss; we’re naught but humble pirates. What is it that you want?

Elizabeth:  I want you to leave and never come back.

Barbossa:  I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.  Means “no.”

The lesson here?  Avoid overly fussy words—always use the simplest word that means the same thing.  Over time, you will discover that the more confident you are as a writer, the simpler your writing becomes.  This is a good thing.  As Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski once observed, “Simple arguments are winning arguments; convoluted arguments are sleeping pills on paper.”  So simplicity is your friend, and less truly is more.

Enough said.


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“Principle” versus “principal.”

Today we dig into the “Dear Scribe” bag and address a reader’s question:

Dear Scribe:

I’m not saying who—but I just noticed that an attorney is using the word “principle” incorrectly.  Can you address the difference between “principle” and “principal”?


Seeking a principled distinction 

Dear Seeking,

I’m sure that we have all lain awake in the wee hours, tossing and turning, and puzzled over the distinction between “principle” and “principal.”  The starting point for analyzing this sleep-depriving puzzle is to know that “principle” is almost always a noun (with exceptions too weird to explain here), and that “principal” is usually an adjective (although it can be a noun, e.g., Principal Skinner, or even an adverb if modified with –ly).  Ok, maybe that wasn’t such a helpful starting point.  Let’s continue.

Generally, a “principle” is a fundamental law, rule, doctrine, or code of conduct that must be followed, e.g.,

  • Einstein’s Principle of Equivalence (used to derive important results without having to solve the full equations of General Relativity).
  • The Principle of Charity (a presumption made in philosophy in which preconceptions about an argument, a topic, or a belief are set aside in the attempt to gain new understanding).
  • Stare decisis is legal principle that obliges judges to respect the precedents established by prior decisions.
  • The “Golden Rule” is a consistency principle that states, “You must treat others in the same way that you would want to be treated in the same situation.”

Note that the noun “principle” can become a verb by adding –ed, e.g., “Seeking a principled distinction.”  Now let’s turn to “principal.”

A “principal” is a word with many meanings.  When used as an adjective, is means something that is the “main,” or highest in rank or importance, e.g.,

  • Columbia’s principal legal argument was that the contract term was unambiguous.
  • Van Gogh’s principal medium was oil on canvas.
  • A faulty steering linkage was the principal reason for the crash.

Finally, “principal” can also be used as a noun, e.g., Principal Skinner, principal and interest, and principal and agent; or when –ly is added, it becomes an adverb, e.g., “Van Gogh was principally a post-Impressionist painter.”

So in summary, a “principle” is a noun that connotes a fundamental law, rule, or general truth.  A “principal” is an adjective (or sometimes a noun) that conveys the meaning of “main” or “primary”—or if used as a noun, “main or chief one.”

That is all for now …

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Squib: boy, why didn’t he get to the point?

The following exchange took place in the Central District of California during a hearing on January 30, 2012.  Here, Judge Dale Fischer explains why lawyers should focus more on persuasion and less on rhetoric:

THE COURT: Now, there were a number of declarations attached to the reply that apparently were not filed immediately after they were signed. Why was that?

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Your Honor, we waited to file them with our reply.

THE COURT: And you seriously thought that was the appropriate approach?

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Yes, I did, your honor.

THE COURT: Well, for future reference, it wasn’t. Don’t hold back evidence that relates to your motion until after the opposing party files its opposition and then just stick it to them at the end. So I’m not sure why you thought that was appropriate, but now you know.

Along those lines: I also want to tell you, I don’t know why lawyers do this, and there’s a lot of them in the room so take heed, all of you, language like failures are staggering, violations of this magnitude rarely occur, stunning display of incompetence, bitter irony, breathtaking dereliction of duty are not only unpersuasive, they’re somewhat annoying. I don’t have time for rhetoric. I’m really, really busy. Why anyone would want this job, I don’t know…

But in any event, it’s just – I don’t know whether you stay up nights trying to think of clever phrases, but trust me, no judge that I’ve ever spoken to has ever said, Boy, can that guy turn a phrase. They only say, Boy, why didn’t he get to the point. So, please, in future pleadings, remember that.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Yes, your Honor.

THE COURT: In addition to that, I’ve been around awhile both in practice and on the bench, so I suspect I’ve seen a few more cases than you, and really, it’s not all that staggering and it’s not all that great a magnitude, so when your experience and mine differ, it just takes all of the punch out of those comments.

To make matters even worse, Counsel, your statement that the government failed to make any effort to preserve the documents is simply false. And your statements in your papers so often go beyond the bounds of zealous advocacy that I have to say your papers had very little persuasive value. In fact, as I was trying to check some of the references you made to deposition testimony, I looked at it three or four times because I thought I must be searching for the wrong page because the pages you were citing to had oftentimes no relationship to the proposition you were citing them for. You started off extremely poorly as I started reading the papers, and I had little confidence in anything you had to say as I went through them.

Judge Fischer denied the defendants’ motion.

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Help save the literal meaning of “literally.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr member: Wetsun

Today we discuss one of the Scribe’s favorite adverbs:  literally.  Sadly, literally is one of our language’s most commonly misused words—and it is up to you, dear readers, to help save it.

As you can see from the following examples, “literally” (which means explicitly, actually, or really) is often misused as a replacement for figuratively or metaphorically:

  • The plaintiff was literally sweating bullets as the judge read the verdict.
  • As she walked onto the tarmac in Phoenix, Jeanne literally walked into a furnace.
  • I literally lost my mind.
  • The Beatles literally exploded onto the music scene.
  • Frank McCourt literally dragged the Dodgers into the sewers.

In each of these examples, “literally” is misused because none of these things actually happened (well, except maybe the last one).  And in using the word in this way, the writer is helping to make “literally” just another vague intensifier.

Help stop the madness.  “Literally” should be used only when something extreme occurred, and to signal the reader that you’re not being merely metaphorical, e.g.:

  • I was literally up all night preparing for oral argument.
  • On September 10, 1960, Mickey Mantle literally hit a baseball out of Tiger Stadium.
  • Evie literally fell out of her chair laughing.

 That is all for now …

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Squib: capitalization of directions

Scribe:  Please advise on capitalization of N,S,W,E.  For example, Stephen lives on the Northeast corner of the floor.  Stephen lives on the East wall.  I drove East on I84.  Etc.  Help! 

Sincerely, A Fan

Courtesy of Flickr member:  Steve Snodgrass

Courtesy of Flickr member: Steve Snodgrass

Dear Fan,

That is an interesting subtopic.  North, south, east, and west are cardinal directions.

When talking about a general direction, the word is not capitalized, e.g.: the north side of the house, the northeast corner of the floor, the east wall, cold north wind, go east for three miles.  This is because in those instances, the direction is used as a common noun—not a proper noun. 

But when a direction is used as a proper noun, it is capitalized, e.g.:  The Northwest, West Virginia, the South.

The Scribe

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