LawProse Lesson #277: “Noncompete” competes with “noncompetition”

LawProse Lesson #277: “Noncompete” competes with “noncompetition”

When editing a brief recently, I noticed that it alternated between the phrases noncompetition agreement and noncompete agreement—mostly using the latter. At various points the brief-writer even used noncompete as a noun, especially as in the plural form (e.g., the employees all signed noncompetes). Having ghostwritten a CLE paper on noncompetition agreements for a partner at a law firm back in the mid-1980s, I sensed that the prevailing term used to be noncompetition agreement. In fact, in my 1987 book A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, I expressed approval of that longer form and looked askance at the shorter, more informal form. That’s how we used to determine which form of a word to use—by looking in dictionaries. The more enterprising among us might have done word searches on Westlaw or Lexis. And I certainly made use of those corpora as a legal lexicographer. Today, however, we all have access to big data to tell us that although noncompetition agreement did in fact predominate in English-language print sources throughout the latter part of the 20th century, in the year 2000 there was a major role reversal: noncompete agreement became predominant and has been very much on the upswing ever since. Given the availability of big data, you ought to try consulting it yourself. If you ever wonder which of two words or phrases is predominant in print, try Google’s Ngram Viewer. In the Google search box, just enter “Ngram,” click on the Ngram Viewer, and follow the instructions. Separate the competing forms by commas and you’ll get comparative statistics over time—most reliably from 1700 to 2008. If you haven’t used this tool before, I predict you’ll find all sorts of uses for it (as well as lots of time-wasting diversions). I’ve even found scholarly uses for the tool. On page 27 of the 2016 book The Law of Judicial Precedent, my coauthors and I say: “Not until the early 1980s did scholarly commentators first use the antonyms horizontal and vertical in reference to precedents. Before that time, the phrase stare decisis was often ambiguous.” How did we discover this info? We began with Google Ngrams, of course.

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