LawProse Lesson #221: The fallacy of intelligibility.

LawProse Lesson #221: The fallacy of intelligibility.

The fallacy of intelligibility. Several readers wrote about last week’s lesson to say that it matters not one whit whether you “cite a case” or “cite to a case.” They said: “Everybody knows what it means.” That’s an interesting line of argument. You’ll encounter it often in usage circles, but not among those who prize fastidiousness with language. True, language is an arbitrary set of conventions, and there is no logical reason why we say “contrary to” instead of “contrary of” or “contrary with.” It’s largely a matter of linguistic custom. Educated speakers of English are expected to know which preposition to use with “contrary.” It’s a linguistic marker. There is some logic behind preferring “couldn’t care less” to “could care less” (are you trying to say that you do care?); this particular phrase, like so many others, is also a linguistic marker. Do you think that idiosyncrasy is a form of government? That maelstrom is a kind of storm? That a bellwether is an omen of bad (or even good) weather? These, too, are linguistic markers. There are thousands of them. Few of these markers lead to real confusion. Rather, they may result in a loss of credibility for the speaker or writer. Nonstandard, ungrammatical language irks educated readers. It distracts them and makes them less likely, even unwilling, to align themselves with you. Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: they spoil the tune. And wrong words make readers stop thinking about your message and start pondering your educational deficits. If anyone tells you otherwise (that is, if someone says it don’t make no never-mind), don’t believe it. Further reading: Garner’s Modern American Usage 154-56 (3d ed. 2009) (s.v. class distinctions). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 158-59 (3d ed. 2011). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. 2010).

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