Friday, March 17, 2017

Hate to say I told you so, but....use that final comma or you may lose in court (and lose big bucks)

Comma Guidelines - Jean TarboxFor years I've been advising you, my students, to use what's called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. I know that your middle school and high school teachers probably told you not to use it, but I am going to respectfully disagree. It will help you to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings like this:

The student council president promised longer recess, higher grades and ice cream and cake. That would be much better written as "longer recess, higher grades, and ice cream and cake." That's a silly example, but using the final comma in a series before "and" just makes this more clear. So, why not?

Today a story broke about a court case where a student who learned NOT to use the serial comma wrote a piece of regulation that is causing all sorts of legal mayhem (and one company a lot of money).

Here's the story:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Illinois Congressional District 4 Gerrymandering. It was created to ...

What has this political map got to do with geometry? 

Hint: it's a Congressional district in Illinois

Elbridge Gerry: Ever heard of him? Probably not, unless you're a history or poli sci major. For the rest of us, here's  the deal. Gerry was a delegate to the US Constitutional Convention (among many other political offices). So that makes him a "founding father," right? Well, Gerry is known to most of us today only because his name has become part of a political dirty word: gerrymander. A gerrymanderered district is one that looks like the one above, or many others we could look at. North Carolina is famous for them.

Anyway, back to gerrymandering. This has become such a problem because in most states the voting districts are drawn by the political party in power (whichever party holds the most seats in the state legislature). And that has led to district drawing that can look absurd. Here's a cartoon about the original district drawn by the Massachusetts legislature in 1812 when Gerry was governor.
Now the party in power will never admit to drawing these districts so its politicians can retain their seats, but that's what it's all about. And don't think it's only one party: Democrats and Republicans have been equally culpable in this.

So, am I ever going to get back to geometry, you're wondering? Yes: here's the connection. A Tufts University professor is proposing that geometry experts train themselves to serve as expert witnesses in court cases challenging these gerrymandered districts. Here's the story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What you should know about the NYS Constitutional Convention vote...and why you should care

Professor Lisa Parshall of the Daemen College has written an exceptionally good blogpost explaining the vote to be held next November on a proposed constitutional convention. Here's what you need to know about that vote and why you should care:
Click here

Friday, February 10, 2017

Huge transfer of archival records to the NYS Archives (right down the street!)

For those of us interested in researching New York State's history, an enormous new trove of information is coming to the state archives right here in Albany. The New York State Archives Partnership Trust has announced that court records dating from the late 17th century and up through the mid 19th century will be moving from New York City to the Cultural Education Center at the Empire State Plaza--ripe for the picking by scholars and researchers.

Here's the complete story from the New York Times:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Please: can we all just stop saying "I mean"?

I think the title here says it all, but I will expound upon this anyway. Have you noticed how often people these days say "I mean"? If not, just listen for it. You'll be astounded how often you hear it. Today, more often than not, you'll hear people start an answer or a statement with "I mean." It seems to have become the new version of "I think," probably because no one says that anymore. What we hear instead of "I think" is "I feel like."

So, please: help me revive the word "think" and restore it to spoken and written English AND please be mindful of saying "I mean." This phrase should properly be used only to drive home a point that you've already made.  For example:

"I think that people should learn to ______ more often. It's a really effective way to ______. I mean, how better to ______ than that!"

So, please: let's all wean ourselves from "I mean." I mean, it's getting old.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Father Coughlin: Foreshadowing this election cycle back in the 1930s?

Here's a fascinating podcast done last year by an author who has researched Father Charles Coughlin, the first media-savvy demagogue who rose to prominence in the 1930s. Listen here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Perils of Secondary Source Reliance: John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Beveridge

John Marshall's Constitution
John Marshall
Thomas Jefferson
Albert J. Beveridge
Albert Beveridge

John Marshall is one of the most famous Americans of all time. He was the third chief justice of the United States and is credited at having created the modern Supreme Court. He also had a nasty relationship with his distant cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Although their political rivalry is one of the best known stories, some of the vitriol attributed to Marshall about Jefferson actually accrued from a miscopied quotation.
In 1916, historian Albert Beveridge wrote what would become the definitive biography of John Marshall. For decades, it stood as the single most important work on the great chief justice. And for decades, its quotations were copied by later scholars. Too lazy to look up the original source of the quotation, they had no idea that they were perpetrating a writing error—over and over again.
The story Beveridge wrote goes like this: When Jefferson assumed the presidency, the nation was divided politically between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. As you might remember, Marshall was  of the Federalist persuasion and Jefferson the leader of the new Democratic-Republicans. Writing about the new president, Marshall said, “The democrats [today we would capitalize that word] are divided into speculative theorists and absolute terrorists. With the latter, I am not disposed to class Mr. Jefferson.” Sounds relatively mild and reasonable, right?
Change one word in that quotation, though, and the meaning becomes diametrically opposite Marshall’s intention; indeed, it becomes downright vitriolic. And Beveridge did exactly that: he dropped the crucial word. Here’s how Beveridge misquoted Marshall: “The democrats are divided into speculative theorists and absolute terrorists. With the latter, I am disposed to class Mr. Jefferson.” Big historical oops.
The bigger oops, though, came from the generation of scholars who accepted Beveridge’s quotation without going to the original source to check for themselves. Marshall was, as Jean Edward Smith has pointed out, painted as far more conservative than he actually was.[1]
Don’t make the historical oops. Find the original source whenever you possibly can.

[1] Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 18.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The best way to get high grades

I know that many of you will roll your eyes when you read this, but seriously, the best way to get good grades is to leave your life outside the door when you walk into a classroom. Your car isn't starting again? Forget it. Your mother's on your case? Don't think about it. Your roommate's a jerk? My sympathies (really...I had one of those freshman year). Don't dwell on it.

Just promise yourself that for the 55 or 80 minutes of that class you'll give it all your attention. Focus.

You'll get so much more out of the class. Not only will your grades go up, but so will your self-esteem and your ability to concentrate. And you'll enjoy the class a whole lot more.

Try it. Focus.

P.S. I wish someone had given me this advice in high school chemistry. Instead of resisting the subject with both feet dug in, I might have actually learned something.

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:

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.