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Three Common Cringeworthy Errors

Readers in many fields can skip right over grammatical errors or bad usages without noticing them. We can’t. We’re lawyers, and many of us are judgmental SNOOTs (SNOOT: Syntax Nudniks of Our Time, which was David Foster Wallace’s nickname for extreme usage fanatics). David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays 66, 69 (2005)). Let’s look at some of the poor usages that always cause lip-curling by the SNOOTs among us.

Affect and Effect

These words have different and distinct meanings:

Affect is a verb that means to cause something to be changed: Speed zones affect how we operate our cars.

Effect is generally a noun meaning a result or consequence: Speed zones have the effect of producing traffic fine revenues for the City.

Effect can also be a verb meaning to cause something to happen: The speed zone in my neighborhood effects slower speeds and more fines.

See Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 34 (2d ed. 1995). Laws affect actions, but they often do not have the desired effects. They may effect some change in peoples’ behavior but only if enforced in an annoying way.

To avoid this mistake, remember that if it’s a noun, the word is effect, and if it’s a verb, the word is probably affect. The use of effect as a verb to mean “cause something to happen” is generally so deliberate that it’s easy to remember the spelling.

Therefor and Therefore

Therefore does not mean the same thing as therefor, and the sentence, “Seller will deliver the fuzzy dice to Buyer, and Buyer will pay Seller therefore,” is just wrong. Id. at 878. Therefore is a valuable adverb meaning “consequently” or “as a result.” Id. at 879. It typically connects a clause describing a state of facts to the description of the consequence: “Fuzzy dice hang from a car’s rearview window; therefore, they impede the driver’s view.”

Therefor is lawyer-speak meaning “for it”: “When I received the dashboard hula dancer from him, I paid him therefor.” No one but lawyers and people who want to sound pompous use therefor—everyone else says, “I paid him for it.”

The simple answer is don’t use therefor—delete it or substitute “for it.” Id. If you use therefor, SNOOTs (and others) will think you are pompous, and if you use therefore in its place, SNOOTs will think you are illiterate.

And/Or

The use of and/or, common in documents, horrifies SNOOTs—particularly those to whom logic and clarity are important. Which is meant, and or or? Logically, it can’t be both. In a contract (where this phrase often is used), the parties must be bound with precision, but and/or is the antithesis of precision. Does the phrase, “Contractor will obey all state statutes and/or local ordinances,” permit the contractor to violate statutes if the contractor complies with ordinances? What about violating ordinances but complying with statutes? If the drafter means that the contractor must comply with both statutes and ordinances, then the drafter should use and. In the unlikely event that the drafter means that the contractor may comply with either statutes or ordinances, then or is the correct word.

Commentators uniformly decry the use of and/or in documents as lazy and dangerously ambiguous. Strunk and White say that and/or “often leads to confusion and ambiguity.” William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 40 (4th ed. 2000). Prof. Garner instructs writers that want to appear even “minimally competent” to “banish this unnecessary monstrosity.” Bryan J. Garner, The Redbook 251 (3d ed. 2013).

In In re Estate of Massey, 721 A.2d 1033 (N.J. Ch. Div. 1998), a court was presented with a will in which a portion of the estate was to pass to the testator’s niece “and/or” grandniece. In deciding that the niece and grandniece should each share equally in the designated portion, the court observed, “Considering the universal scorn for ‘and/or’, and the harrowing prospect of deciphering sense out of any English sentence in which it is contained, it is startling to find ‘and/or’ in a will drafted by an attorney at law.” Id. at 1036.

The least harmful uses of and/or appear sentences in which the drafter wants to prohibit a party from doing several things; however, there’s a clearly understood and accepted alternative for that: “Contractor will not violate statutes and ordinances, or any of them.”

Conclusion

It isn’t hard to avoid these usages that cause SNOOTs to doubt the writer’s literacy. The drafter just needs to think—both about the meanings of the words used and about whether those words, read literally, actually effect the parties’ intent. When in doubt, consult a SNOOT through a usage guide, dictionary, or grammar blog.

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