The Saturday Writing Quote — on story, continued


“Because gossip often places people at the center of attention, it also, at least temporarily, enhances their status with others. This may explain why gossipmongers come from the most isolated, least popular members of a group. After all, they are the ones who most need something to make them socially acceptable.”

— Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, “Gossip: The Inside Scoop,” in Dimensions of Language 92, 94 (Boyd H. Davis ed., 1993) (via Bryan Garner’s daily blog on usage)

The Saturday Writing Quote — on perfection and completeion

“Works of art are not so much finished as abandoned. Perhaps poems can be perfect. A short-short story might even be perfectible, as effective and enjoyable for one reader as the next. But novels and other book-length narratives are great rambling things that always contain some flaws. For works of any length, there comes a point when your continued tinkering won’t improve the whole, but will just trade one set of problems for another.”



— Bruce Holland Rogers, Word Work 246 (2002), via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, in his daily blog on vocabulary and usage.

Talking terminology: More on “not guilty”


Last week, I gave you part one of lexicographer and legal writing guru Bryan Garner‘s comments on the phrase “not guilty” and its common-but-improper substitute, “innocent.” Today, his rant on another common misuse of the phrase, the implication that that a jury’s verdict of acquittal is itself “beyond a reasonable doubt,” rather than a finding that the prosecution did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here’s what Garner says, in his daily usage blog.

“Not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

This phrasing is ambiguous. The standard by which a jury decides criminal charges is this: a defendant is guilty only if the evidence shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he or she committed the crime. Otherwise, the defendant is not guilty. Thus, we say that a defendant was not found “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But it doesn’t follow that we should also say that a defendant was found *”not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Is that “not guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt)” or “not guilty-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt”? The latter idea makes more sense — e.g.: “The question is whether a judge can reach a contrary conclusion on the second charge — deciding that though a defendant was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he nonetheless probably committed the crime.” “High Court’s Highhanded Decision,” Chicago Trib., 26 Jan. 1997, at 20.

Yet many readers will misconstrue the phrase. Thus, regardless of the writer’s intention, some will think of * “not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” as a strong vindication — rather than as the slight vindication it is (we, the jury, had the slightest bit of reasonable doubt, so we had to find the defendant not guilty). The writer might have gotten it right in the following sentence, but nonlawyers are likely to be misled: “When you know all the facts [of the O.J. Simpson case], you’ll see that the prosecutors failed to meet their burden of proof, and how, contrary to the court of public opinion, the jury arrived at their verdict of ‘not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ” Patricia A. Jones, “Uncensored: Authors Answer Questions Left with Simpson Verdict,” Tulsa World, 1 Dec. 1996, at G5.

If somebody is found not guilty, say “not guilty.” Omit the standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) to prevent a miscue.”

For more on reasonable doubt and how to recognize one, read the Q&A “I know the prosecution must prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but what is reasonable doubt?” in my guide for writers, BOOKS, CROOKS AND COUNSELORS: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.

Talking terminology: “Innocent” is not a substitute for “not guilty”

GarnerRegular readers know I admire the work of Bryan Garner, usage master, writing teacher, and man of many lexigraphic talents. (That word probably isn’t in his terrific book, Garner’s Modern American Usage; I think I just made it up.) Regular readers also know I have a few peeves about common use—or misuse—of legal terms; if they’re truly technical, I can be forgiving—say, about the legal meaning of “malice,” which is quite different from the ordinary meaning—but if they are terms every American should know, I lose patience. So does Garner, and since our views coincide in one of his recent blog posts, I’m sharing. Or re-blogging. (The former a use, the latter a word, not in his book, either.) His audience is lawyers, but we can all learn from his rant.

“It used to be that only journalists made the mistake of writing “plead innocent” rather than “plead not guilty,” but now this phrase has made it even into judges’ writing. Lawyers should avoid the phrase, since there is no such thing as a plea of innocent. Journalists, on the other hand, avoid “not guilty”:

“Many newspapers insist on saying that a defendant ‘pleaded innocent’; they will not report that he or she ‘pleaded not guilty.’ I’ve gone to clients for many years and said, ‘That’s wrong. People don’t plead innocent; they are not found innocent. They plead and are found “not guilty.”‘ Now I realize that newspaper writers live in perpetual fear of the word ‘not’ either being dropped by a printer or being changed from ‘not’ to ‘now.’ Therefore, whenever possible, they shy away from the word ‘not,’ even at the expense of strict accuracy. . . . The lesson is simply this: Before you dismiss others’ workmanship, do understand why they have said what they have said; there may be a good reason for it.” Robert Sack, “Hearing Myself Think: Some Thoughts on Legal Prose,” 4 Scribes J. Legal Writing 93, 98-99 (1993).

Fair enough. But writers who do have enough time for careful proofreading shouldn’t sacrifice accuracy in this way.

Strictly speaking, “not guilty” and “innocent” aren’t quite synonymous. To be innocent is to be blameless. To be not guilty is to have been exonerated by a jury of a crime charged — regardless of actual blame. So in a sentence such as the following one, many can’t help thinking that the writer is blurring a distinction — e.g.: “A San Francisco jury found him innocent [read ‘not guilty’] of the charge in 1988.” Robert Hilburn, “Way Beyond Center Field,” L.A. Times, 4 May 1997, at 5.”

One of the unique features of Garner’s approach to usage is his Language-Change Index, showing five stages of changes in accepted usage. He rates “plead innocent” for “plead not guilty” at Stage 4, meaning “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).” (Besides making you smarter, the book is a fun read.)

The Saturday Writing quote

IMGP1940“Just as you cannot make your personality interesting by trying to be original, so you cannot make your style, which is an expression of your personality, interesting by trying to emphasize it or beautiful by trying to adorn it.”

— C.E.M. Joad, The Bookmark 93 (1926; repr. 1946), via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s American Usage, on his daily usage blog

The Saturday Writing Quote — on listening


“Few people . . . have had much training in listening. The training of most oververbalized professional intellectuals is in the opposite direction. Living in a competitive culture, most of us are most of the time chiefly concerned with getting our own views across, and we tend to find other people’s speeches a tedious interruption of the flow of our own ideas.”

— S.I. Hayakawa, Symbol, Status, and Personality 32 (1963) (via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, in his blog)

(photo: my garden, May 2014)

The Saturday Writing Quote — Mark Twain

“[Writing is] an art, not an inspiration. It is a trade, so to speak, & must be learned — one cannot ‘pick it up.’ Neither can one learn it in a year, nor in five years. And its capital is experience. . . . Whatever you have lived, you can write — & by hard work & a genuine apprenticeship, you can learn to write well; but what you have not lived you cannot write, you can only pretend to write it.”

Mark Twain, letter to Mrs. Whiteside, as quoted in letter to Olivia Clemens (10 Jan. 1885), in The Love Letters of Mark Twain 228 (Dixon Wecter ed., 1949) (via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, in his blog)

The Saturday Writing Quote — on language

In a workshop at Left Coast Crime this past March, crime writer Robert Dugoni said his characters are swearing less and less these days, as he comes to realize that shock value neither develops character nor advances the plot, and that swearing turns away readers who might otherwise enjoy his books. Other novelists are making the same shift. I hope it’s a trend, not for the sake of purity, but for the sake of truth and precision.

“The annihilation of taste has not spared language. There is the curious notion that freedom is somehow synonymous with gutter jargon. At one time, people who worked in the arts would boast to one another about their ability to communicate ideas that attacked social injustice and brutality. Now some of them seem to feel that they have struck a blow for humanity if only they can use enough four-letter words. The trouble with this kind of verbiage is not just that it is offensive but also that it is trite to the point of being threadbare.”

— Norman Cousins, “An Epitaph for the Saturday Review — and Culture, Too,” in The Living Language 137, 138 (Linda A. Morris et al. eds., 1984) (via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, in his daily blog)


Terminology — lawyer or attorney?

More from usage guru Bryan Garner:

Garner“Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

lawyer; attorney; counsel; counselor.

The two most common among these, “lawyer” and “attorney,” are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession — except perhaps that “lawyer” is often viewed as having negative connotations. Thus one frequently hears about “lawyer-bashing,” but only the tone-deaf write “attorney-bashing” — e.g.: “Attorney-bashing [read ‘Lawyer-bashing’] always will be a popular pastime.” Christopher Smith, “Injury Lawyer May Be Utah’s Best — Bar None,” Salt Lake Trib., 7 Feb. 1994, at A1.

Technically, “lawyer” is the more general term, referring to one who practices law. “Attorney” literally means “one who is designated to transact business for another.” An attorney — archaically apart from the phrases “power of attorney” and, less commonly, “attorney-in-fact” — may or may not be a lawyer. Thus Samuel Johnson’s statement that “attorney” “was anciently used for those who did any business for another; now only in law.” A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

From the fact that an attorney is really an agent, Bernstein deduces that “a lawyer is an attorney only when he has a client. It may be that the desire of lawyers to appear to be making a go of their profession has accounted for their leaning toward the designation attorney.” Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer 60 (1965). Yet this distinction between lawyer and attorney is rarely, if ever, observed in practice.

In American English, “counsel” and “counselor” are both, in one sense, general terms meaning “one who gives (legal) advice,” the latter being the more formal term. “Counsel” may refer to but one lawyer {opposing counsel says} or, as a plural, to more than one lawyer {opposing counsel say}.”

Me, I prefer lawyer because it sounds more practical, less Latinate than attorney. Your characters may disagree — Garner does!


From the esteemed Bryan Garner:

Garner“Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day


Journalists often misuse “lawsuit” (one word) for “complaint” (= the paper that is filed to start a lawsuit) — e.g.:

o “In its 18-page lawsuit [read ‘complaint’], Viacom-owned CBS alleged: ‘”Celebrity” was consciously designed to mimic “Survivor” and unfairly trade on its success.'” Meg James, “CBS Sues to Block New ABC Program,” L.A. Times, 7 Nov. 2002, Bus. section, pt. 3, at 3.

o “The allegations in his 144-page lawsuit [read ‘complaint’] read like a Robin Cook novel.” Lynne Tuohy, “Pfizer Trials Called Cruel, Immoral,” Hartford Courant, 6 Dec. 2002, at A1.

The “lawsuit” is the whole process; the document (however many pages long) is only an instrumental part of it.”