Friday, April 10, 2015

Think Commas Don't Matter? You Should Reconsider....

If you are one of the many, many people who think that commas don't matter anymore, consider this:

The words of the venerable Fourteenth Amendment, on the back of which so many of our rights are based, contain lots of commas--and, as you'll see below, every one them absolutely necessary.

"nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Do you see the final comma between "life, liberty, or property"? 

We should all be very grateful for the clarity that comma creates. Here's why: The third comma indicates that the phrase "without due process of law" applies to all three words: "life," "liberty," and "property." Without the comma, it would only refer to "property." 

Just imagine the litigation that would have gone over whether the state can take your "life" or your "liberty"  without due process. 

If only the framers of the Bill of Rights had used commas the way we do today, and the way the famers of the Fourteenth Amendment did, the Second Amendment might be a whole lot more clear. Alas, in those days, there were no rules for comma usage, and writers frequently strew them about their sentences. 

So, here again is my primer on comma usage within a sentence:
1. Use a comma to separate words in a series, like "life, liberty, or property" above. And do use the final one--despite what your high school teacher might have told you about it not being necessary. 

2. Use a comma before "and," "or," "but," or "nor," when they join two independent clauses. 
 I would have gone, but she went before me. 

3. Use a comma after an introductory phrase or clause: 
Alert to the problems involved, she was careful to put the commas in the right place.

4. Use a comma to separate two adjectives modifying the same noun independently:
The bright, motivated student wanted to know more about punctuation. 

Those are the basics. Follow these rules in your memos and reports, and you'll be guaranteed that promotion you were hoping for. Well, not necessarily, but you get the idea. Clear, concise, correct writing matters! 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Not to Say, #3

Overheard in the hallways yesterday:

He's like "where's she going?" and I'm like, "I don't know. How should I know?" And he's like, "well, you should know."

What has happened to the perfectly good verb say? Why does no one these days speak the sentences above like this:

He said, "where's she going?" and I said, "I don't know. How should I know?" And he said.....

Really, when was the last time you heard someone use this rapidly disappearing verb? Help me to save "said" from extinction. Give "like" a rest and save it for things that you actually like.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

More great advice from Scribes!

I have often told my students to write simply: don't try to impress professors with fancy language, long sentences, and semi-colons. A one or two-syllable word is nearly always better than its three or four-syllable counterpart. Think of Hemingway: no one wrote more simply than he, and yet he is considered one of the best authors of all time.

But now you don't have to take my word for it: take Scribes' word for it. This is the group mentioned in my previous post, a group dedicated to improving legal writing. Here's what Scribes has to say about simple versus complex in writing:
Scribes New Logo

"Writing Tip No. 47:  Simple Words, Simple Sentences

Life is complicated enough when we all use simple words we learned by high school.  Most briefs and opinions can be written with these words, and the rare need to use a more difficult word can be moderated by careful definition. Too often, attorneys and even some judges write as though their thesaurus was always at the ready to locate the more complicated synonym.
 
Even when composed of simple words, a sentence with several dozen to several hundred words is difficult to understand. Shorter sentences typically reflect a fuller, more confident understanding of the subject matter. It can't be a surprise that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure calls for "a short and plain statement of the claim." In other words, "Rule 8(a) requires parties to make their pleadings straightforward, so that judges and adverse parties need not try to fish a gold coin from a bucket of mud." Stanard v. Nygren, 658 F.3d 792, 798 (7th Cir. 2011), quoting United States ex rel. Garst v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 328 F.3d 374, 378 (7th Cir. 2003).


So, there! Don't listen to me, but do listen to the wise writers at Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers. 

Thanks to Ann Taylor Schwing 
Copyright (c) 2015 Scribes -- The American Society of Legal Writers

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Yes, there is a Santa Claus and yes, grammar really does matter.

I'm not so sure about Santa Claus other than to wonder why I am always so lucky, but the second part of this headline I am sure about. And to prove my point, I reproduce here a newsletter post from the folks at Scribes, a society for legal writers.

Scribes New Logo
February 13, 2015

Scribes Grammar Tip No. 46:  Grammar Knowledge Is Essential

 
Grammar is critical not only because it enables individuals to write coherently but also because it is used to assess the meaning of what others such as legislatures and contracting parties write. Thus, courts "begin by looking to the express language of the statute, construing words and phrases according to grammar and common usage."  Jefferson Board of Equalization v. Gerganoff, 241 P.3d 932, 935 (Colo. 2010). Courts are required to follow elemental rules of grammar for a reasonable application of the legal rules of construction. General Fin. Services v. Practice Place, 897 S.W.2d 516, 522 (Tex.App. 1995). Courts employ traditional rules of grammar in discerning the plain language of the statute. State v. Bunker, 189 Wash.2d 571, 578, 238 P.3d 487, 491 (2010)

Naturally, every rule has a countervailing rule. "Indeed, justice should not be the handmaiden of grammar." Value Oil Co. v. Town of Irvington, 152 N.J. Super. 354, 365, 377 A.2d 1225, 1231 (N.J. Super. 1977), aff'd, 164 N.J. Super 419, 396 A.2d 1149 (App.Div.1978), citing Minor v. The Mechanics Bank of Alexandria, 26 U.S. 46, 7 L.Ed. 46 (1828); accord, Federal Communications Comm'n v. AT&T Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1177, 1181-82 (2011).

In the end, only an attorney who knows the rules of grammar completely can find the persuasive right answer through the effort to interpret a difficult writing.

Authored by Ann Taylor Schwing 
Copyright (c) 2015 Scribes -- The American Society of Legal Writers 
[reproduced with permission]

Friday, February 6, 2015

For CJ majors...and all the rest of us

I came across this story in the New Yorker about how we remember catastrophic, emotion-filled events (like the JFK assassination for people my age) or the Challenger disaster (for people a bit older than my current student) or 9/11 for all of us.

When I teach my Roosevelt to Reagan course, I always explain that people of my generation can tell anyone exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Apparently, according to the new study discussed in the New Yorker article, most of them are wrong.

This study has serious implications for criminal justice as it adds further questions to the reliability of witness testimony.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Not to Say, #2

There's lots of reasons to worry about what we say today. 

What's wrong with that sentence?

Written out like this, it's not hard to figure out what is wrong with that sentence. Basic grammar: the word reasons above is a plural noun. So, it needs a plural verb. There's is not plural, but singular.

We have, then, a plural noun with a singular verb. Problem.

We would know when writing that sentence above to type out There are lots of reasons to worry about what we say today. 

But most of us don't say it that way. We say "There's lots of reasons." Listen to people speak and you'll hear this all the time--even on such supposedly erudite places as NPR or CNN. I wish I knew why. Twenty years ago this would have been considered uneducated by the kindest people and downright dumb by most others.

You might be thinking right now that this is just another way that the English language is evolving, so what's the big deal. Here's what I think: when the language evolves to make an improvement, I'm all for it. When it just changes without any benefit at all, I protest. I don't see any benefit to saying "there's diaries and letters" to my class when I could just as easily say "there are diaries and letters."

And if you say "there are diaries and letters," I doubt anyone would consider you a dork.

So, today's advice: just pluralize your verbs with plural nouns. It's not hard. And it will make your speech stand out in today's trendy-speak crowd.On a job interview or internship, it might make a difference.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Not to Say (or Write)...a new series

Some of my students already know (and the rest of you will come to know) that I worry over some of the ways that American English is changing. Some changes are obviously for the better. I'm not one of those people who says that the language should remain unchanged. But, there are lots of ways now that spoken and written English are changing that are not good--they serve no useful purpose and actually only reflect popular trends. Some of them are downright inane.

So, today I begin a list of things currently in vogue in spoken English that you should strive NOT to say (or write). The list will continue.

Today's new, trendy word that is totally unnecessary--the very old fashioned "oftentimes." Why in heaven's name would anyone use a word that has three syllables when the two syllable version--"often"--means exactly the same thing? Where did this frequent use of "oftentimes" come from? I have no idea. But it needs to go away.

And one more thing: don't pronounce the "t" in "often." That's also trendy and also totally unnecessary (and, I think, annoyingly pretentious). For decades now, Americans have pronounced the word without the "t." 

Just say no to "oftentimes." It's ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Rodney Dangerfield of Supreme Court decisions?

I realize that many of my students may never have heard of Rodney Dangerfield, but he is a famous (and intentionally annoying) comedian of my era. His most repeated line is, "I get no respect," after which he launces into a long, sad list of disrespectful things that had happened to him.
Rodney Dangerfield Pictures & Photos
At any rate, I read an article in the New York Times today which talks about the Obama administration's retreat from the Bush administration's aggressive stance on treatment of "enemy combatant" detainees.

Funny thing: the article mentions several reasons that Obama has taken a different stance, mostly crediting world opinion, but it fails to mention the Supreme Court's equally important rulings in the detainee cases (Hamdi, Rasul, Hamdan, Boumedienne, for example) that clipped the president's wings and forced him to share decision making on these issues with Congress and to recognize detainees' rights to habeas corpus. Is the Supreme Court now the Rodney Dangerfield of the three branches? 


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Money influence in our courts

Unlike federal judges, most state court judges are elected.That stems from the democratic (notice the lower-case "d" in that word] movement of the Jacksonian era. Elected judges, the thinking went, would be less influenced by politics if they were elected (I know, sounds odd, doesn't it?)

At any rate, we like to think that our judicial system is impartial and that our judges use only their knowledge of the Constitution and state laws to objectively decide cases and appeals.
But since the release of campaign money in the last few years, much has changed. On the Media, a respected radio program bringing news about journalism, has released a story this week that refutes the idea that elected judges are impartial.

Click below to listen to the podcast (only a few minutes) about how campaign contributions are not only helping to decide who sits to preside over a case or hear an appeal, but also influences how that person decides issues.
Click here to listen.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Short-term memory-itis

A few years ago, Bill Clinton came to campus and gave a memorable speech. One of his many themes that night involved our attachment to the new and our disregard for anything that occurred later than this morning. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram all encourage us to focus on this second. Who posted what in the last thirty seconds? That seems to encompass much of our waking hours.

Historians have our own version of this phenomena. We focus on minute details and short periods of time. A recent study found that doctoral dissertations in history reported that in 1900 the average period studied by doctoral students was about 75 years. By 1975, when the historical profession was in the throes of a movement called microhistory, the span was down to 30 years. My own dissertation covered 66 years--out of the totality of US history, that's not much.

Now, two historians are calling on the profession to expand its gaze again--to focus on the macro level--to see what I so annoyingly keep referring to as "the big picture." I agree and I applaud such advice to young historians. For more, see this summary of the authors' argument:
http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/10/16/reclaiming-history-for-the-future/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Like your free speech?

Anyone who appreciates our nearly absolute right to free speech in this country should thank some students at UC Berkeley from fifty years ago.

It's hard to believe, but as late as the 1960s, students had little right to express themselves or to hear countermajoritarian viewpoints. To learn more, click here for a fascinating New York Times story about the student free speech movement that was ignited on the Berkeley campus and quickly spread.

Only within the last fifty years has the nation adopted a culture of open expression. I'll leave any further thoughts about this to you.

Monday, September 8, 2014

As if primary sources weren't problematic enough....

A fascinating story on History News Network deals with the difficulties of transcribing tape recordings. Read the story by clicking here.

If you read to the bottom, you'll see how differently three different scholars transcribed one section of the Nixon Oval Office tapes from the Watergate era. It's absolutely amazing how these transcriptions differ.

So, although the tapes of conversations seem as if they would be perfect primary sources, we can see here that their transcriptions must be read with the proverbial grain of salt.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Constitutional interpretation

My constitutional history students hear me say the word "interpretation" so many times that they probably think I mumble it in my sleep. (I don't think I do, but who knows?).

Anyway, the Supreme Court has given us yet another nebulous term to "interpret": in the Hobby Lobby decision from last term, the Court held that a for-profit "closely held corporation" did not have to comply with the Affordable Care Act's requirement that birth control be provided its employees if the company objected on religious grounds.

Right away, constitutional scholars and pundits recognized an interpretational problem: what exactly is a "closely held corporation"?

Now that question is being asked as the federal government tries to grapple with a definition. To read more, click here. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Yet another controversy over a famous historian

Today's New York Times carries a story about Rick Perlstein's new book on Reagan. To read the story, click on the book's cover below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/business/media/rick-perlsteins-the-invisible-bridge-draws-criticism.html?_r=0

This story raises several important questions and adds a new wrinkle to the publication of historical research: it seems that publishers are now shifting endnotes and footnotes (the heart of historical writing, if you ask me) to websites and away from the printed book. This has caused another historian (of a different political persuasion) to charge Perlstein with plagiarism.

The problem with that charge, though, is that Perlstein has attributed the other historian--but only online. So, the reader has to take an additional step--beyond flipping to the back of the book--and open a website to see the attribution. This leaves room for the original historian to claim plagiarism in the book itself.

What a can of worms this is! What do  you think, gentle readers? Is this a good idea for publishers and historians or are publishers looking for trouble?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

So?

Why do so many learned people seem to start every other sentence when they speak with the word "so"? It seems to be one of the latest trends. I hear students, professors, even NPR commentators do it.

If you think about it, though, it makes no sense. "So" is a coordinator. It coordinates something that came before with something that comes after.

She did this, so I did that.

Starting your conversation or comment with "so," then, doesn't make much sense.  Does it?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A new semester...a new year. Resolve not to be passive.

Passive learner: what does that mean? Is it even possible to learn just by sitting and listening? Perhaps. But it sure isn't easy or effective.

Think of this: you're in college. Either you (through work and/or loans) or your parents (through their work and/or loans) are paying for this. A lot. So, why wouldn't you want to get the most out of it? You shop for bargains in your cellphone plan and for that pair of shoes you want, so why would you not apply the same kind of thinking to your very expensive education?

You pay for it; you should get something out of it besides a diploma and a 2.0 GPA. So, how? It's really quite a simple answer.

Here's the action plan:
1. Read and understand your syllabus--for every class. Underline important things. Put due dates on your calendar so your phone will remind you.

2. Come to class. Sounds obvious, but it's so important that it has to be repeated.

3. Read whatever is assigned BEFORE the class in which it is due. If you're not doing the reading, you're only going to get so much out of the lecture or discussion that is meant to accompany it. Not doing the reading may seem like a good idea the night before class, but it's a really bad idea ten years down the road when you can't remember anything from the class you took (trust me: by then, you'll really wish you could) and when your GPA comes back to bite you because you;ve decided you want to go to grad school. 

4. Be active in both the class part and the reading part. In class, take notes--lots of notes. Write down as much as you can. If you're always listening for what's important, your brain will be more focused and you will learn more. When you're reading, highlight or underline. Make notes in the margin (hey, the bookstore is not going to give you one dime more if you turn that book back in pristine, so you might as well mark it up). If you read actively, always looking for what's most important, you WILL remember more--and that always translates to better learning and higher grades.

So, here's a new year's resolution for you: give this plan one semester. Just one semester! Resolve to do this for spring semester 2014 and I assure you that your grades will rise and you will be much happier. The old adage about nothing succeeding like success? It's true. Once you try this, and you see the results, you'll never go back to passivity again.

How much time do you spend on social media?

In a couple of classes over the last few semesters, I have asked groups of students this question: how much time do you spend on social media each day?

The answers have ranged from none (amazingly enough) to all day.

But here's a little story I want to share with you. A few years ago, when I first asked this question, I got what seemed a mostly hostile response from the group. Their manner suggested that I had crossed a line by hinting that maybe they were spending their time unwisely. I walked out of that room resolved never to ask such an impertinent question again.

A few weeks later, as the semester end approached, I had an email from one student who had seemed particularly unreceptive to my suggestion that students were wasting their time. He wrote that until I asked that question, he had never considered the amount of time he spent each day staring at his phone. I got him to thinking about it, he said, and he realized that it was four or five hours every day. That realization made him consider that if he spent just half that time studying, he could do better. And sure enough, he said he was checking Instagram and Facebook less frequently and his grades had gone up.

So, at the risk of my being impertinent, I'll mention this: just think about it.How much time do you spend this way?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Super Bowl time: what has MetLife Stadium done for New Jersey lately?

To answer the question, what has MetLife Stadium done for New Jersey lately, most people would think of the upcoming Super Bowl. Surely that's worth millions to the Garden State and the urban area around the stadium.

Indeed, that's the argument often heard by stadium project proponents who want to pry loose millions of taxpayer dollars. "It will benefit the area," the proponents claim. "It will revitalize the central city," proponents claim. "It will fill the city's coffers," proponents claim.

In many cases, urban stadiums have not fulfilled those kinds of expectations. Here is a story of the stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Read it by clicking this link.

In posting this article, I got a bonus. Not only is it relevant because this is Super Bowl weekend, but the story also involves Governor Chris Christie. It's a BOGO!

Update: this post generated a marvelous debate in my American City class this past Tuesday night. I had originally referred to the stadium as "Giants Stadium," but some in the room (Jets fans, perhaps?) took some umbrage at that name, and so I have bowed to their suggestion. And, in truth, the formal name of the stadium is the MetLife Stadium, and so, in the interest of accuracy, I stand corrected. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Another semester...and too much reading!

Why do professors give you so much reading on those syllabi? Along about now, you're probably starting to fell overwhelmed by what those nasty multi-page nagging documents expect you to do. (I used the word "nagging" because the syllabus always seems to me like such a scolding thing--it seems to say "do this, or else you can expect to fail my most-important-in-the-world course").

So, if I feel that the syllabus is meant to "nag" students, and I don't like the whole idea of nagging, why do I give you so much reading?

That's an excellent question that deserves an answer.

Here it is: because I only see you for three hours a week, I can't possibly go over everything that a college course needs to accomplish. That means that you have to read (because that's what historians turn out--books and articles.)

On the flipside, though, historians also talk--a lot. And we produce documentary films--a wonderful thing. So, you also get to listen to podcasts and lectures and watch some very fine documentaries if you follow my syllabus.

I can't apologize for all the outside work I assign (although something makes me feel that I should) because college is "higher learning," and that means more work. So, please remember: we don't give you all that reading and listening and viewing to do because we enjoy torturing you. We do it because we're committed to your learning. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thinking of law school?

Many of my students dream of going to law school, and many have actually gone. I wish I'd kept track of how many, but I haven't.

At any rate, for those of you thinking of going to law school today, here's an interesting article that makes the case for law school in these days of declining enrollments and poor employment rates after three years and much expenses in legal training.

It's a short article that makes the wise-investment-in-your-future argument. Read on. But then be sure to read the first comment as well.