Of course you use a dictionary when you don’t know the meaning of a word. But you might have to pay attention to context to figure out which definition applies and whether it’s the right word to use. That’s why the dictionary is the traitor among your legal writing tools. Turn instead to a loyal style and usage guide when you have questions about which word to use and much more.
Dictionaries Are Descriptive, Not Prescriptive
Dictionaries tell you how people use language, not how they should use it. Dictionary editors try to provide all the meanings you are likely to come across — even when the speaker or writer is using an “incorrect” term. Dictionary.com includes definitions for “Ain’t,” “Wanna,” and “Gonna.” If you’ve been living on Mars, or English is not your native language, and you didn’t know what these “words” mean, the dictionary would help.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” you may say. “I’m a lawyer; I would never write these words. Besides, ‘ain’t’ is shown as ‘substandard’ and ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’ are ‘pronunciation spellings.’”
Well, how about this definition? “Gantlet” is defined as a variant spelling of “gauntlet.” Do you know the difference? A person forced to run between two lines of people who hit the runner is running a “gantlet.” We use the term metaphorically as a harrowing experience to be endured: “Republican female candidates struggled to survive the gantlet of primary season.” A “gauntlet” is a glove. To “throw down a gauntlet” was a way to challenge a man to a duel. A demand letter, complaint or motion might be your equivalent. No connection at all between these words, right? But these — and other pairs — are so regularly interchanged that the latest dictionary entries link both words to either definition.
So how do you make sure you are using the right word?
Style and Usage Guides
When you turn to the Bluebook or Maroonbook for a proper citation form, you are using a style guide. Perhaps you used a style guide in high school and college to format your term papers. Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” is a pithy classic primer on good writing you may have used in school, and it is still worth a look.
Two well-respected style guides are “The Associated Press Stylebook” and “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.” These two manuals were created by their publishers to tell their writers how to format articles. The AP Stylebook includes a chapter on punctuation and sections for writing sports and business stories. About 10 percent of the book is devoted to a primer on media law. The New York Times guide lists all entries alphabetically, so rules on comma usage are found under “C.”
Both books include an entry on the differences between gantlet, gauntlet and gamut (a full range of things, including musical notes). You could rely on either of these guides and not go wrong.
Bryan Garner to the Rescue
You may know Bryan Garner as the editor-in-chief of “Black’s Law Dictionary.” You may have seen him at a public appearance with Justice Scalia, his sometime co-author. But before all that, Garner was and continues as the editor of “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”
Unlike The New York Times and AP style guides, Garner’s is for use by anyone. It is as big as the other two books together. Because it is a usage guide, you can look up definitions in Garner’s, but you won’t find the gamut of words found in a dictionary. Instead, you will find the ones that trip up many writers. The definition of “dastard” (coward) compares the word to “bastard” (person born outside wedlock). Garner’s notes the trend to use “gauntlet” for “gantlet” and urges the reader to resist it.
Or you can use the guide to fashion effective sentences. “Eyewitness,” advises Garner’s, is one word, never two (an error spellcheck would never catch). There’s an entry for the difference between “no fewer” and “no less,” another for “may” versus “might” and sections on the proper formatting for dates and numerals. The eight-plus pages entry on “punctuation” distinguishes the em dash from the en dash. Other umbrella sections include “pronouns” and “pronunciation.”
Because lawyering requires you to be a wordsmith, your language resources should comprise a dictionary, a thesaurus and a style and usage guide.
Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.