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Bryan Garner on Words

Face a classic word challenge and increase your personal power

Sep 1, 2013, 03:19 am CDT

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Don’t you think its better to use words that everyone understands when you are writing for the court?

By okiedokie on 2013 08 28, 3:11 pm CDT

Will you give partial credit for 18(a)? :)

A New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of “restive”: “(of a person) unable to keep still or silent and becoming increasingly difficult to control, esp. because of impatience, dissatisfaction, or boredom.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate: “stubbornly resisting control,” “marked by impatience or uneasiness.” Impatience seems to be a strong element of the word’s meaning.

By Michael Leddy on 2013 09 03, 2:44 pm CDT

Less traditional ways of achieving the same result of improving your vocabulary: 1) learn a Latin language. My first language is Spanish, and that allowed me to recognise the roots of several words and make educated guesses. 2) Read historical romance. I recognised several words from those supposedly worthless “trashy” books. (e.g. legerdemain, noisome, demesne)

By Rosario on 2013 09 04, 4:13 am CDT

That’s just what more lawyers need to do, come across to juries and the public as stuffy academics more concerned about looking smart and using big words rather than speaking and writing so the average person can understand the message. I personally have it when some judge or their clerk throws a bug word or two into the opinion. It comes across either that they shoehorned it in to sound smart, or they use so many rarely used, and esoteric, words that many reading their opinion won’t get what they are saying because they dint have any clue what the words mean.

Citing 98 cases using a word this quite well read commenter has never seen or heard of over the course of 100 years is not something to brag about. It shows there is a reason no one knows about the word and why no one uses it. I get that there are word nerds out there, and good for you, everyone needs a passion. But realize that if all lawyers and judges started to do this, it would alienate us even more from the public. Now, if I gave aby spelling or grammatical mistakes please forgive me, I am on my phone.

By Wouldn't you like to know on 2013 09 06, 4:27 am CDT

Yes, a good vocabulary is important.  One doesn’t need to be a Willuam F. Buckley , Jr., but the employment of wonderful words available to us as English speakers can be powerful tools.

However, in our dumbed-down e-world, I believe that proper grammar is far more worthy of emphasis.  Writers and speakers of English are becoming so lazy, careless, and unclear.

By Goldcoaster on 2013 09 06, 5:52 am CDT

make sure the judge understands the words you are using - if not he/she will view you as a pompous ass. Trust me - judges have very small vocabularies.

By laura mitler on 2013 09 06, 6:42 am CDT

I almost stopped reading where he admitted this all began as an attempt to impress a girl.  I did stop reading where he admitted it didn’t work.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 06, 7:19 am CDT

Is anyone able to access the answers? I can’t get the link to answers to work.

By EWN on 2013 09 06, 7:30 am CDT

If the author, Bryan Gardner, was “skewed as a teenager,” wouldn’t that be “statute-ary rape?”  ;-)

By Megapixels on 2013 09 06, 8:13 am CDT

I’m a fan of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage and the Redbook…but I disagree that a large vocabulary contributes in any meaningful way to success in the law. Yes, using obscure words might make you sound fancy, but the goal of our profession is to persuade our audience. To that end, wouldn’t it be better to use more common language that we can be certain our audience will understand?

By Young MI Attorney on 2013 09 06, 8:14 am CDT

I find it far more efficient to work on reducing my vocabulary.  The fewer words I know, the less time it takes to search for the right word.  I try to forget at least 5 words each day.  And I try to watch a lot of tv.  I’ve haven’t had any difficulty yet understanding what I see there.

By PWT on 2013 09 06, 8:28 am CDT

I was able to score 75%, even though I actually only knew about 25%.  I mostly relied on the hint that each word would in theory be useful to lawyers, plus traditional test taking skills—keeping an eye out for trap answers.

I think that the general attitude today is that it’s much more important to be able to look something up quickly and accurately rather than to simply know it.  Not entirely unreasonable.

By linovo on 2013 09 06, 8:44 am CDT

Professor Garner, you write about vocabulary books that you’ve read many and “scanned the rest.”  Did you mean “skimmed”?

By Doug Cherry on 2013 09 06, 8:58 am CDT

@1, 4 and 10.  One can have an expansive vocabulary and also exercise the discipline to use more common words geared toward the audience.  You need use your knowledge to condescend —that is the conduct of someone who is pompous.  I would rather expand my own vocabulary while exercising the ability to speak to anyone.  I appreciate this exercise, even with my mediocre results.  I tell my children to learn everywhere, and never stop learning.  This will help me practice what I preach!

By 11 of 20 on 2013 09 06, 9:08 am CDT

Should have been “need NOT use your knowledge”.  Typed on a phone.

By 11 of 20 on 2013 09 06, 9:11 am CDT

@3—I agree about the historical romances! I got a perfect verbal score on the SAT because I read so many romance novels in high school.

By Horsehair on 2013 09 06, 9:30 am CDT

Given some of the comments above, I looked in vain in Garner’s column for his advising readers to use these words in court or in pleadings.  He doesn’t.  I suggest that his point is that it is helpful for lawyers (and everyone) to have large vocabularies so that they can better understand what others say and write.  I also note that while there may be interesting correlations between vocabulary and “life chances,” there may not be any sort of direct cause-and-effect relationship such that boning up on vocabulary is likely to increase success or income.

By Ben on 2013 09 06, 9:32 am CDT

I would add that really all you need to do to expand your vocabulary is read a lot, and be willing to look up words you don’t know. And I agree with @14—just because you know a word doesn’t mean you should use it in your writing and in your speech. Exercise judgment.

By Horsehair on 2013 09 06, 9:35 am CDT

A book giving regional pronunciations of Latin legal phrases would be entertaining, if not helpful.

By Terry Martin on 2013 09 06, 9:41 am CDT

If I had many hours to spend learning new words, I would choose to learn them in a foreign language instead.  Time spent learning even trivial words in a foreign language can expand the world-wide audience of people with whom one can communicate, sometimes adding millions or billions of people, depending on the language.  On the other hand, time spent learning big words in English can end up shrinking the size of one’s audience, because often people stop paying attention when they do not understand the big words.

By Rick on 2013 09 06, 10:02 am CDT

I’m giving myself 18 out of 20 despite disagreeing with Bryan on # 11, irrefragable. The second definition in my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is “impossible to break or alter” with the example “an irrefragable cement.” So “unbendable” and “strong” are not dumb answers. So ends my little rodomontade.

By Pete on 2013 09 06, 10:41 am CDT

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”

A great and working vocabulary is invaluable, but it must be coupled with the wisdom to know how and when to use the esoteric—thus the comments are valid that effective communication may require us to eschew the more erudite language—but that is no reason not to learn the words.

When one has a broad vocabulary, one uses his mental accumen to discern from an array of choices which word most precisely fits the meaning needed.  The author suggests reading the dictionary for more words. I suggest reading an entry in the thesaurus, and studying how each word in the list of synonyms is in fact different from the others: Good, great and fine do not mean the same thing, and it is wisdom to know the difference.

The mostly unusable words on the test are valuable as a test—the excercise of discerning the nuances—and in each, the distraction of the wrong answer that initially seems right.

In my writing instruction, I was taught never to use the word “thing” because there is always a better word. The harder I think for that word, the better my writing becomes.  Trying to reduce ones vocabulary and watching a lot of TV (which I hope was a facetious comment) leaves one with a lazy style of writing merely about, well,  things.

By Hadley V. Baxendale on 2013 09 06, 10:48 am CDT

Responding to “Young MI Attorney” I’ll note that Mr. Garner doesn’t contend that a large vocabulary contributes to success in the law.  His point is not causation, but correlation.  Perhaps it would be fair to say that using big words in a brief won’t necessarily improve the outcome, but having a large vocabulary may give you better reasoning powers or other intellectual advantages.  I found as a young lawyer that using exotic words in my pleadings and briefs had less effect on the outcome than stating things clearly and precisely.  One advantage in knowing lots of words is that you can avoid using them improperly, which can give a bad impression of your capacity.

By Old MI attorney on 2013 09 06, 11:01 am CDT

I got eight correct. And I am poor, so there could well be some truth to what Bryan said. Instead of an Indian style caste system, we use how much wealth as well as how many vocabulary words we’ve collected to clearly delineate the “haves” from the “have nots.” But in the race to use words for the sake of status delineation, I’m reminded both of Dr. Suess’ tale of THE SNEETCHES and John Cleese of Monty Python fame playing the nearly incomprehensible (and rather arrogant) Frenchman.
I would agree with @1, (and so Seattle University School of Law’s Legal Writing program, I believe). And, honestly, I think the Founders would agree too. They were the wealthiest caste, the slave owners, yet they didn’t try to prove it with a vocabulary that only the “elite” could understand.
Bryan Garner once said that he supported the relatively new legal writing ‘philosophy’ of plain English. I think that position is at odds with this article.
But this could simply be sour grapes on my part, for failing Mr. Garner’s vocabulary test, and might have nothing to do with the kind of word choices the Founders made in writing our founding document.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 06, 3:45 pm CDT

Correct on 15 of 20. I graduated from prep school in 1962 and from college in 1966. I guess having had 8 years of French, 6 years of Latin, and 4 years of Greek studies helped. I missed 1,  5, 6, 9, and 18. I also solve crossword puzzles. I enjoyed the challenge. And please note that I “graduated from” schools. I did not “graduate school”. When did “from” stop being needed after “graduated”?

By Old Man from New Hampshire on 2013 09 06, 5:49 pm CDT

Got 18 (I read a lot), but there are perhaps three of them that I’d ever use in my own writing.  I’m not writing novels, I’m writing analyses and arguments, and while they need to be precise, they also must be clear.

By Ham Solo on 2013 09 06, 6:40 pm CDT

He wanted to impress a girl with his vocabulary. I hope he realizes by now that it makes no difference how big it is, it’s a question of how well you use it.

By Me on 2013 09 06, 9:15 pm CDT

I was told by my legal writing instructor that, when I note a word that I do not know, I should generally assume the author’s ignorance in how to effectively communicate. Thus the high(brows) are brought low.

And John Cleese can’t actually speak French.
http://youtu.be/CVJ-W6LioB8

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 07, 2:34 pm CDT

But damn it. I’m actually feeling guilty. Like I’m picking on someone. Like I’m being a bully. I honestly thought that the first half of this article was funny, delightful, waggish and gamesome.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 07, 2:56 pm CDT

I believe John Cleese CAN speak French (because I have seen it on TV).  He may have no idea what he is saying, but he can speak it.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 07, 5:08 pm CDT

Old Man @25;  I agree. In junior high I had courses in Greek and Latin roots of English words.  They turned out to be among the best, most useful courses in all of K-12.  Crossword puzzles are also a good vocabularly builder.  As far as “graduated”  Garner himself comments on it in “Modern American Usage” and he agrees with you. When the term originated in the 16th century, the school, not the student, did the graduating, e.g. “Oxford University graduated Mr. Smith as a Bachelor of Arts” or “Mr. Jones was graduated from Cambridge.” In time, usage as a transitive verb began to rise, e.g. “Miss Smith graduated from Harvard.”  Garner dismisses omission of “from” as “poor wording.”

By ActionThisDay on 2013 09 09, 8:42 am CDT

That’s just what more lawyers need to do, come across to juries and the public as stuffy academics more concerned about looking smart and using big words rather than speaking and writing so the average person can understand the message. I personally have it when some judge or their clerk throws a bug word or two into the opinion. It comes across either that they shoehorned it in to sound smart, or they use so many rarely used, and esoteric, words that many reading their opinion won’t get what they are saying because they dint have any clue what the words mean.

Citing 98 cases using a word this quite well read commenter has never seen or heard of over the course of 100 years is not something to brag about. It shows there is a reason no one knows about the word and why no one uses it. I get that there are word nerds out there, and good for you, everyone needs a passion. But realize that if all lawyers and judges started to do this, it would alienate us even more from the public. Now, if I gave aby spelling or grammatical mistakes please forgive me, I am on my phone.

There was a state Supreme Court Justice I want to say in MI but cant remember that taught a course in legal writing. It was titled how to write for a Judge and not sound like one.
Big obtuse words sometimes have their place—but unless they describe something better than a common word, more precise, they are just an ego builder for the writer to me.  Hey look at me—I used a word no one knows!!!
Simple legal writing wins cases. One noun, one verb, one period. Move to next sentence.
After a number of years with the KISS principle being pounded in my head I took a college writing course to improve my skills. After the second week the Professor asked me to stay after class. I was thinking cripes—that paper was NOT that bad!
He said in all my years as an editor, and a professor I have NEVER had to tell a student what I am about to tell you. 
In this class you can use a compound sentence!  I had to laugh but at least the keep it simple stupid (KISS) had sunk in!

By GRB on 2013 09 09, 8:05 pm CDT

In some jurisdictions, “compound” is a recognized objection to the form of a question.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 10, 12:33 am CDT

@27 - I think that is a common refrain from those with limited, er, vocabularies.

By NoleLaw on 2013 09 10, 12:43 pm CDT

Q: What do you call a law professor with a massively sized vocabulary that he refrains from using?

A: “Well-versed” and a good communicator.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 10, 1:50 pm CDT

This link to the English of John Cleese presents a new take on the penultimate of persuasive writing.  http://now.msn.com/monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-modern-trailer-goes-viral?ocid=vt_fbmsnnow

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 11, 9:52 pm CDT

penultimate goal. Oh my God.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 11, 9:53 pm CDT

vocabulary is like our other attributes:

it’s not how big you make it - it’s how you make it big!

By Yenrab of Syr on 2013 09 12, 4:12 pm CDT

Mr. Garner, I would buy your useful-vocabulary book. The Red Book sits on my desk and I use it daily.

Words are the lawyers’ scalpel. Knowing the precise word to use at the precise moment is essential to persuasive communication. The need to dumb it down every now just reflects the importance of knowing your audience; it is not an excuse for a poor vocabulary.

By Island Attorney on 2013 09 15, 7:19 pm CDT

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