Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner on Dictionaries in the Court

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the Supreme Court and the dictionary. She’ll also tackle your questions about the English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is now out in paperback, and a paperback version of Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman, was recently issued.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [41]

a g from n j

looking for a dictionary to retrofit an argument. talk about a conservative activist supreme court. holy,"origins of the specious" sondheim,the clowns are here.

Jun. 16 2011 11:55 PM
Ann Moore from New York

"My sister's and my dog" is perfectly correct as is. The speaker is referring to the dog which he (or she) and the sister own together. It is "our" dog: "my sister's and my dog." I'm astonished at the contortions that PTO went through to arrive at something else that was less accurate, and less graceful.

Jun. 16 2011 10:15 AM
Charlie Roberts from Highlands, NJ

Race car drivers, when talking about their race, almost always use "we" even though they were the only person in the car. I think it's kind of their way of including their crew (who helped prepare the car) in to the performance.

Jun. 15 2011 02:01 PM
Steve Saxe from White Plains

I have written and edited 19th century texts, and extensively used the Century Dictionary (1898, I believe) online for finding contemporary meanings. This 20-volume dictionary is almost the equivalent of the OED.

Jun. 15 2011 01:59 PM
Nancy Duggan from Morristown, NJ

I see the word enormity used to mean hugeness over and over. Is that usage becoming the new meaning?

Jun. 15 2011 01:58 PM

As to that or which- Elements of Style- Law School 101.

Yes there are law dictionaries- Black's.

Jun. 15 2011 01:58 PM
Maude from Park Slope

I'd love to know if the guest finds art-world conversation irritating. It drives me bananas. maybe it's the same for music writing?

Jun. 15 2011 01:58 PM
Thomas from Manhattan

What about double subjunctives? Do they bother you as much as they do me? Esp from news reporters. \
EG, scientists fear there may be a tornado.

Jun. 15 2011 01:57 PM
Mason from NYC

The King/Queens uses "we" because the King/Queen is the voice of all of their subjects.

Jun. 15 2011 01:56 PM

As to the use of disingenuous- look to South Park where the school children were taught to cheat and when caught were to say "I misinterpreted the rules". A truism whether relating to laws, rules or data, no?

Jun. 15 2011 01:54 PM
Shelley from Prairie Du Chien, WI

Why is it seemingly acceptable to say, "Me and..." when "____ and I..." is the correct grammatical structure?

Jun. 15 2011 01:54 PM

Back to "My sister's and my dog" [it might help Pat understand the question if the apostrophe was pointed out]: I too often hear "My sister and I's dog"! I did not make this up!

Jun. 15 2011 01:54 PM
Sam from Manhattan

I’m sure you’ve been asked this endlessly: How do you feel about the abandonment of number agreement: i.e., replacement “his or her” with “their” for simplicity sake. “Each person is responsible for their lunch.” Not to give in is to be labeled a fuddy-duddy or sexist. “Each person is responsible for his lunch.”

Jun. 15 2011 01:53 PM
peter from UWS

Best Ad-Lib from a movie: Bill Murray in King Pin "You're on a gravy train with biscuit wheels"

Jun. 15 2011 01:52 PM

The Constitutional Lawyer caller makes the case for "originalism" sound very stupid. After all, the literature of the time in 1776 to Webster and beyond.

Without audio tape or visual proof, how can those Supreme Court judges have any feeling for the common conversational usage as opposed to the literary use at the time & even more importantly the legal usage which may not be completely from Blackwood? After all, Blackwood was the British legal dictionary & might have been modified in usage by domestic common law & judicial precedent.

Jun. 15 2011 01:52 PM
Leah from Brooklyn

Please go back to the unanswered question. Is it "John's and Melissa's house" or "John and Melissa's house"?

Jun. 15 2011 01:50 PM
David from West Hempstead

People use words other than "lie" to avoid libel charges and such.

Jun. 15 2011 01:49 PM
Jean Kelly from NYC

Re "my sister's and my dog". The use of "I" doesn't really help. I think the listener was asking about a more elegant possessive pronoun.

Jun. 15 2011 01:49 PM
SK from New York

What about “privacy” and penumbra”?

Jun. 15 2011 01:49 PM
bob from Manhattan

follow up
does this mean for instance and for example are the same ??

Jun. 15 2011 01:49 PM

I'm currently writing my doctoral thesis, and find myself forced to write "we" instead of "I," though most often I really mean "I." Where did this convention come from in academic work? It seems rather silly, though unavoidable.

Jun. 15 2011 01:47 PM
Howard from the Bronx

The misuse of less and fewer is driving me nuts. Noone seems to know the proper usage

Jun. 15 2011 01:47 PM
John Grieder from Morristown, NJ

I wonder if Ms. O'Conner misapprehends the reason a judge would use a dictionary to define a term. If the meaning of a word in a statute is at issue -- that is, if it is in dispute as a central proposition in a court case -- and if the legislation does not define that word, then the judge looks to secondary sources to make the best determination of what the legislature intended. There is no need to use a dictionary if the legislation is explicit. (This may answer Tyler's question above.)

Jun. 15 2011 01:46 PM
Maude from Park Slope

I love the "listen" option on website dictionaries--I read a lot, so I might know what a word means, but pronounce it wrong. too bad I just assume I have the pronunciation correct! unfortunately I usually have to find out the hard way. (i.e. in conversation I mispronounce a word. incredibly embarrassing.) sometimes I am saved by though.

Jun. 15 2011 01:46 PM
Howard from the Bronx

The misuse of less and fewer is driving me nuts. Noone seems to know the proper usage

Jun. 15 2011 01:45 PM
Michaelanthony from Rego Park, NY

For the past few years, I've been using electronic dictionaries, both portable and on my computer, but rarely on the Internet. Not only is this very handy, but it keeps me from losing myself reading countless entries on the way to the one I really need. Such linguistic indulgence is an enriching pastime, of course, but I can easily mismanage my time that way. New words are just so... seductive!

Jun. 15 2011 01:43 PM
Doris Perlman from Manhattan

Regarding use of the various online dictionaries—e.g.,—a great benefit is the audio pronunciation icon. It's interesting, though, that I don't always agree with the current received pronunciation, judging by what I hear in daily life or the media. Still, it's a helpful adjunct. Not a substitute for Webster's Collegiate or the (shorter) OED as far as definitions and etymology are concerned, though.

Jun. 15 2011 01:40 PM
Phoebe from Bushwick

I recently had a debate about the spelling of "realize" vs "realise."

I tried to sort it out using an online dictionary, but could not, as I found identical definitions for both.

Jun. 15 2011 01:37 PM
Cole P. from ATL, GA

Which dictionary is the best on the market?

Jun. 15 2011 01:37 PM
Harvey from Midtown

Can you please explain where the term "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle" comes from. It sounds so funny but it isn't very logical. Thanks.

Jun. 15 2011 01:37 PM
bob from Manhattan

not about dictionaries

why has for instance -- completely replaced --

for example

Jun. 15 2011 01:36 PM
clark from nj

I once spent 45 minutes with one of our corporate laywers while he debated whether to use "that" or "which" in the content of an email to our customers.
Honestly, in the context of the sentence, either one was fine.
I walked out of his office rolling my eyes.

Jun. 15 2011 01:36 PM
Mark Johnson Rehnstrom from Guilford, CT

It also drives me crazy when ministers use dictionary definitions of words from the Bible to explain the meaning of the scripture. Especially maddening when King James translation is explained with a modern dictionary. Translation from Greek or Hebrew to Shakespearean English which interpreted with a modern language dictionary.

Jun. 15 2011 01:35 PM
Bob from Avon-by-the-Sea, NJ

More and more I see a "smart single opening quotation mark" instead of an apostrophe (such as when writing '11 instead of 2011). I know that computers automatically change the apostrophe at the beginning of a word into a "smart single opening quotation mark," but are we so uneducated as to let this happen? And since "common usage" often leads to new rules, will this become an accepted usage?

Jun. 15 2011 01:35 PM

The entire law in this country is based solely on language--both statutes and precedent (legal opinions) are are written language. What are lawyers and judges supposed to base arguments upon if not dictionaries?

Jun. 15 2011 01:34 PM
tom from long island city

Is there a term for the kind of english used in old movies? Remember how they had a slightly upper-crust, vaguely British sound,the 1920s to the 40s, more or less)

Jun. 15 2011 01:33 PM
Debbie from Brooklyn

Ms. O'Conner:

I'm so glad you are on today!

I have a question. Is this correct (if the dog belongs to both of us)?

My sister's and my dog.

It's so awkward. Thank you!

Jun. 15 2011 12:13 PM
mic from Manhattan

More and more people say "thank you so much," rather than "thank you very much." Is there a difference? Is "thank you so much" grammatically correct?

Jun. 15 2011 10:48 AM
Tracklin from NYC

Can the Supreme Court make it illegal to use "impact" as a verb, or at least outlaw the word "impactful?"

Jun. 15 2011 10:33 AM
Erica P. from NJ (in exilium)

It would also be nice if you could book someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. I used to cringe every time she was on the show, now I just find something else to do instead of listening.

Jun. 15 2011 09:25 AM
Patrick from Bronx

Do legal dictionaries exist and are they used?

Jun. 15 2011 09:25 AM

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