“Nucular” and “Nuclear” and So-Called Standard English

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal Writing, Political Processes & Rhetoric

As a legal writing professor, one part of my job is to help students who didn’t grow up speaking or writing “Standard English” continue adapting their writing to meet the expectations of employers and clients.  Of course, to get through college, many students have already made changes in the way they use English.  But some students come to law school with additional work to be done.  In fact, at least for me, the effort to consciously conform my English speaking and writing patterns to expectations different from those I grew up with never really ends.  

So, like the blogger in this post at frogs and ravens (which I reached via feministlawprof), whatever criticisms I might make of Sarah Palin, jabs at her speech patterns rub me the wrong way.  As frogs and ravens points out, “How you pronounce a word says nothing about your character, your intelligence, your values, or your education.  All it says is whether you are (a) one of the lucky people who grew up speaking ‘the right way’ as your native accent, (b) one of the people who did not, or (c) one of the people who did not and makes a conscious effort to abandon the speech patterns of their childhood to fit in with the expectations of others.”  And it seems somewhat ironic, and, well, dumb, that the prejudice against “regional and working-class accents” enables a candidate “to distance herself from her upper-middle-class lifestyle, her position of power, and her lofty ambitions” just by the way she pronounces words.

4 thoughts on ““Nucular” and “Nuclear” and So-Called Standard English”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always found it amusing that the same people who ridicule Palin and Bush for their pronunciation of the word as “nucular” are often the same people I’m having a beer with at bar reviews or going on dates with who find it simply adorable that I pronounce the word “room” like “rum” or “idea” as “idear” because I come from Boston. When did we stop caring about WHAT a candidate says and start worrying about HOW he or she says it? If people want to criticize the ideas of the candidates, be my guest. If they want to call them stupid because of how they speak, they need to stop and realize how ridiculously hypocritical they sound, especially since I can assure you that I’ve never met a single person who has brought that up and doesn’t do something similar to that in their own speech patterns.

    But the initial point made in this blog, which is likely to be lost in the inevitable Palin discussion, is something I’ve been thinking about lately as well. In the criminal courts in Milwaukee County, hundreds of motions are filed every day that use common idioms that are supposedly not appropriate for legal writing, such as “an if-the-shoe-fits mentality,” “a needle in a haystack,” “going out on a limb,” etc. I’m starting to wonder if the proper sentence structure/language argument made in LWR classes isn’t really only applicable to appellate briefs, the lone environment left in this court system where formality seems to still trump expediency.

  2. Andrew, I actually agree with you about this second point too. Sometimes the stance we tend to take on the importance of perfect grammar and formality in legal writing classes seems…well, at least, inaccurate. But I guess, if not legal writing professors, who will let you know when your grammar is non-standard, or when your word choice is informal. When I am talking grammar or other related issues, I do acknowledge that readers’ preferences with regard to formality vary widely. And frankly, I do have in mind appellate brief writing when I advise students about formality. I would like all students to be _able_ to meet those most formal of expectations, and then to choose a less formal sort of language if it seems appropriate to them.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this exact issue myself, especially in connection with teaching LAWR.

    If we teach a student to write using a formula (a whole ‘nother can of worms) and then have the student conform to a very formal style, does the student lose her voice?

    If a student can’t “hear” her voice in a paper, does she feel disconnected from her work? Taken a step further, does she feel disconnected from law school or the legal profession?

    I feel like I fib a little when I say a legal audience will expect a high degree of formality and perfect English in writing.

    At the same time, truly bad grammar and style is not professional.

    I struggle to find the balance. And I’m open to advice!

  4. “I struggle to find the balance. And I’m open to advice!”

    Well, from the perspective of a student, I’d say first that grammar (at least to the extent of things like “their” versus “there” versus “they’re”), spelling, and style should always be taught, and in fact I didn’t intend to imply otherwise in my initial post. Part of the reason I didn’t offer to become an ASP leader for a Legal Writing class, despite the suggestion that I’d be good at it, is that if I had to read 30-40 papers of misspellings and terrible grammar . . . well, at the very least, I wouldn’t be pleasant. So, on that note, I envy the Legal Writing faculty’s sanity when dealing with this. 🙂

    That being said, I absolutely believe that the reason some students hate legal writing is exactly what you’ve suggested, Professor Blemberg: they can’t hear their own voice in the paper, and thus they become detached from it. The rule I’ve always followed from the day I started writing papers–and the rule I’ve been telling some of my 1L friends who have asked me–is that formality and one’s voice aren’t mutually exclusive, and I think that needs to be emphasized more. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you write in shorthand or curse or any of the things I’ve actually seen people do in papers, and it definitely doesn’t mean you can’t do that within the context of IRAC or CREAC or whatever formula you like. But Professors Greipp and Julien made it clear to my LWR classes that we should always write with an eye to answering two questions:
    1.) “Why should the reader care?”
    2.) “How can I explain this in words someone WITHOUT a legal background can understand?”

    And, really, how can you answer those questions if you don’t own the topic AND the way it’s expressed? I don’t mean to suggest the Legal Writing faculty doesn’t make an effort to show this. It’s just that 1Ls are often too scared and overwhelmed to get the message, and thus it may have to be hammered home. It might be worth bringing in a speaker or two a semester to talk about how they succeed in doing that, if only because students tend to (unfairly) distinguish between a professor and a practitioner.

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