Call a spade a ‘spade’- Kayode Sofola SAN

Kayode Sofola SAN reminds advocates to call a spade a spade, and not an agricultural implement. Sofola has a firm command of English and an ear for the apt expression. He is blessed with a literary turn of mind. He also points out that people would say methodology when method would do just fine; conditionality for condition; and usage for use. Emulate the eminent silk and prefer the shorter, simpler, punchier word.

Miss or Mrs- What’s the court’s business?

Whenever I appear in court, I proudly announce myself as “Chinua Asuzu, [usually] for the Defendant.” I am visibly male, and extremely proud of it. The judge, observing my maleness etched on my rugged face, jots my name down as “Mr Chinua Asuzu.” Knowing this, I smile in silent gratitude for the judge’s graciousness. I never introduce myself to the court as Mr. The judge respectfully assigns the title to me. Unknown to many Nigerian Alhajis, Ambassadors, Architects, Barristers, Chiefs, Doctors, Engineers, Pharmacists, and Professors, “Mr” is a title of high respect and honour for gentlemen. The judge puts this title in front of my name. I am a man of respect. I am a gentleman.

The title Mr does not indicate my marital status—only my gender, and the fact that I am deemed worthy of respect by the honourable judge. The judge is not interested in my marital status. He couldn’t care less. He respects me whether I’m married or single, no matter my age. He’s just waiting to hear whether I’ll talk cool law or hot air.

But when a female colleague announces herself as, say, “Fatima Bala,” the judge retorts, as if a fatal omission had been made: “Miss or Mrs?” If she’s single and on the “wrong” side of 40, the lady would then confess in an apologetic whisper: “Miss,” as if being single was comparable to leprosy, or as if the title of Miss was a matter of intense personal shame.

Female lawyers are supposed to announce their court appearances with a clear and loud indication of their marital statuses summed up in the title Miss or Mrs, for example, “Nkechi Olajide (MRS)” or “MRS Nkechi Olajide”. When they are married, they shout the title: MRS; when they are single and mature, they whisper … miss … as if something is amiss with Miss.

Nothing is amiss with Miss!

Whether a lawyer, male or female, is married should not be the concern of any court or judge. But if it must be, then courts and judges should be interested not only in the marital statuses of female attorneys but also in those of males.

Ms (pronounced Miz) should do for women what Mr does for men: as married and single men use Mr, so married and single women should adopt Ms. Women all over the world should reject any discriminatory or unjustifiably differential treatment in forms of address. Ms is a woman’s best and smartest title.

As in other phases of gender issues, women are often their own worst enemies. Why must you advertise your marital status on your business card and in other business and social contexts when your men don’t announce theirs? Men introduce themselves as, say, Jonathan, or Mr Goodluck, while women scream Mrs Abiola. Women should demand and expect respect on their own footings as individual human persons and not as appendages to some man.

The egregious discrimination built into the judicial inquiry about female lawyers’ marital statuses is a subtle and nuanced assault on the spirit of section 42(1) of the Nigerian Constitution and articles 3 and 18(3) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These statutory provisions and treaty obligations frown severely on any species of discrimination, no matter how disguised, against women.

“And now, Ms Okorodudu, what were you saying about the case of Heaven v Pender?”

Subtle Distinctions

Lawyers should possess semantic exactitude—we should appreciate subtle distinctions between words or expressions that look, seem, or sound similar.

In this issue, we explain the differences between:
alphabet and letter
ambiguous and vague
amount, number, and quantity
anyone and any one
awesome and awful
bath and bathe
been and being
borrow and lend
breath and breathe
Britain, England, Great Britain, and United Kingdom

alphabet versus letter
Alphabet refers to the entire system of letters of a language. Alphabet means “the letters of a language arranged in their usual order.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Alphabet is the set of letters. A, B, and Care not alphabets; they are letters. A letter is a unit of the alphabet.

ambiguous versus vague
Ambiguous means susceptible of two different meanings. To use ambiguous, you must have in the mind the two possible interpretations.

Vague means abstract; difficult or impossible to pin down. To use vague, you need not proffer or even contemplate a specific interpretation or several specific interpretations. The meaning is just not clear.

amount, number, and quantity
Use amount only with uncountable or mass nouns: amount of water, amount of food, amount of work. Never use amount with countable nouns: never say or write amount of people, amount of books, amount of phones. Say number of people, number or quantity of books, number or quantity of phones. Never say quantity of people.

anyone versus any one
Anyone always refers to a human being, but any one can refer to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Say you have several cars and I want to borrow one. I should say, “May I borrow any one of your cars?” not “May I borrow anyone of your cars?” Of course in speech, they sound alike. But when you write, remember: anyone always refers to a human being.

awesome and awful
Awesome is positive; awful is negative. Awesome is good; awful is bad.
Although your dictionary may include a negative nuance in defining awesome, in usage awesome is positive. Your listeners or readers won’t read a negative connotation into awesome. God is awesome. Rolls Royce is awesome. Awesome means ‘amazing, astounding, awe-inspiring, great, splendid.’
Awful means ‘very bad or unpleasant.’

bath and bathe
Bath is the noun, bathe the verb. A bath could mean a bathtub or similar container in which we wash ourselves, or an act or instance of washing oneself or another. You take a bath. You go into the bath.
To bathe is to wash oneself or another, or to wash a part of the body. You bathe. You bathe the baby. You bathe the wound.

been and being (auxiliary verbs)
Been is past; being is present. Been is not merely past—it is typically completed past. When your client returns from the police station after an unpleasant visit, she has been interrogated. When your client is at the police station answering difficult questions and her husband calls you for an update, you report that she is being interrogated.

borrow and lend
The giver of a loan lends; the receiver borrows. Borrow me your pen is bad English. Say, lend me your pen.

breath and breathe
Breath is the noun; breathe the verb. Breath is an act or instance of taking air into the lungs, or the air so taken, or an amount of air that enters the lungs at one time.

Breathe means “to take air into your lungs and send it out again through your nose or mouth.” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

Britain, England, Great Britain, and United Kingdom
Britain is an island comprising three countries: England, Scotland, and Wales. When you get a British visa, you can enter any of these three countries.

England is the part of Britain we’re most familiar with.

Great Britain is what the British call their island. I don’t think it’s great. I think Nigeria is great.

United Kingdom is short for United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So United Kingdom contains four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

What a complicated geography lesson!

‘I Give You That Orange’

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The plain English movement in legal writing is spirited in most advanced jurisdictions, common law and civil law alike. The European Union (herself civil-law-dominant) is part of this movement. EU Directives are drafted in better and clearer legal prose than traditional legislation in our common-law world. Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US are all agile plain-English destinations.

In the US, the plain English movement is over 100 years old. As Professor Judith Fischer reports, “A movement for plain English in the law has gathered momentum in the United States for more than a hundred years. A few lawyers advocated plain English in the nineteenth century.” (Judith Fischer, ‘Why George Orwell’s Ideas about Language Still Matter for Lawyers’, University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2007-02; Montana Law Review, vol. 68, page 132.)

One of those lawyers was Timothy Walker, an Ohio judge. In the article just quoted, learned author Judith Fischer continues: “Timothy Walker . . . parodied a lawyer saying ‘I give you that orange’:

I give you all and singular my estate and interest, right, title and claim, and advantage of and in that orange, with all its rind, skin, juice, pulp, and pips, and all right and advantage therein, with full power to bite, cut, suck, and otherwise eat the same, or give the same away, as fully and effectually as I, said A.B., am now entitled to bite, cut, suck, or otherwise eat the same orange, or give the same away, with or without its rind, skin, juice, pulp, and pips, anything hereinbefore, or hereinafter, or in any other deed or deeds, instrument or instruments of what nature or kind soever, to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding.

Walker concocted this legalese to illustrate the virtues of its opposite, plain English.

Insert the Oxford Comma

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In a list of 3 or more items with a single conjunction or disjunction, “always insert the serial comma. Some writers insist on omitting the last comma, before the ‘and’ [or ‘or’]. Do not omit the last comma—doing so can cause misinterpretation.” (Judge Mark P. Painter, ’30 Suggestions to Improve Readability, or How to Write for Judges, Not Like Judges’, page 19,

That serial comma is also known as the Oxford comma. Deploy it to good use.

Write: affidavits, briefs, and pleadings

Not: affidavits, briefs and pleadings

Write: arbitrators, attorneys, mediators, and judges

Not: arbitrators, attorneys, mediators and judges

Write: civil procedure, criminal law, real estate, or intellectual property

Not: civil procedure, criminal law, real estate or intellectual property

Without the Oxford comma, the last 2 items in any of the lists seem to have an incestuous relationship. They appear separated from the earlier items in the list. They seem to have a special affinity not shared with the rest. Leaving out the Oxford comma “creates strange bedfellows at the end of sentences.” (see endnote below)

The Oxford comma clarifies meaning especially when the listed items are not single words.

The Write House teaches academic writing, brief writing, business and corporate writing, judicial writing, learned writing, legislative drafting, litigation documents, and transactional drafting.

This sentence might be confusing without the Oxford comma.

Some authorities and style guides, including the New York Times, oppose the Oxford comma. Yet others suggest discriminatory use, saying it should only be used to resolve ambiguity. Don’t mind either camp. The Oxford University Press and the US Government Printing Office use the Oxford comma.

Novelist Harold Livingston (author of The Coasts of the Earth, The Detroiters, and Ride a Tiger) inserts the Oxford comma:

. . . oldest, closest, and best friend . . .(Harold Livingston, Ride a Tiger, London, Futura, 1987, 460.)

Francine Rivers, the award-winning Christian-fiction writer, also uses the Oxford comma:

Whether they were sitting, standing, or walking, Theophilus taught him Scripture . . . (Francine Rivers, As Sure As the Dawn, Carol Stream, Illinois, Tyndale, 1995, 337.)

The Oxford comma should be mandatory in legal writing. Bryan Garner, the legal-writing pope and editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, endorses the Oxford comma, saying, “Use a comma to separate words or phrases grouped in a series of three or more, and include a comma before the conjunction.” (Bryan Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, 2nd edition, 2002, 3.) I would add, “or disjunction”—the Oxford comma also applies when the last item in a list is preceded by or rather than and. So write the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal, or the Supreme Court; not the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court.

The Oxford comma applies even when the listed items are not nouns. The following examples are from The Elements of Style (W Strunk Jr and E B White, The Elements of Style, 3.):

Write: honest, energetic, but headstrong
Not: honest, energetic but headstrong

Write: He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
Not: He opened the letter, read it and made a note of its contents.

With several conjunctions or disjunctions, you usually need no commas.

Write: Anne and Chinua and Eno
Not: Anne, and Chinua, and Eno

Write: Joshua or Maxwell or Sam
Not: Joshua, or Maxwell, or Sam

The Pope and Mother Teresa

If you’re still sceptical about the Oxford comma, consider People v Walsh {2008 WL 724724 (NY Criminal Court Jan 3, 2008)}. In that case, the judge upheld the Oxford comma, saying obiter, “For example, in an author’s dedication ‘to my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa’, the absence of a comma between ‘Pope’ and ‘and’ indicates that the author’s parents are the Pope and Mother Teresa . . . ”—a blasphemous dedication! So, unless the author is of virgin birth, the correct dedication would read: To my parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa—the work is dedicated to 4 people: the author’s two parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa.

The ampersand and business-name exceptions to the Oxford comma rule

When you use the symbol & for and instead of spelling out the conjunction, then you should not insert the Oxford comma. The logogram & is called an ampersand.

Write: Enemuo, Kola & Ibrahim

Not: Enemuo, Kola, & Ibrahim

Write: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

Not: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz

But you should not ordinarily use ampersands in your writing. Never insert ampersands in legislative or transactional drafting. Reserve them for unavoidable use, as in the names of firms which already spell their name with an ampersand.

Many law firms use no commas in their name. Don’t force a comma into a firm name. Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun do not insert commas in their firm name. So:

Write: Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun

Not: Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor, & Segun

And not: Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor & Segun

Omit the Oxford comma in business names:

Write: Eneli, Kuku and Obiora

Not: Eneli, Kuku, and Obiora

Alexandra Petri, ‘Save the Oxford comma! A Grammar Nazi’s plea’, ComPost,, 30 June 2011 (last accessed 13 November 2013).