July 22, 2005

"It was a close thing, but Benedict Arnold's bold plan to capture Canada for the Revolution fell short at the Battle of Quebec in early 1776."

That's the first line of one of John Roberts' Court of Appeals opinions. (I'm trying to read/skim them all.) I love the line. I especially love the use of the word "thing." That shows a depth of understanding about writing style. Less able writers would fuss about the word "thing" -- not formal enough? not specific enough? Law review editor types would probably agonize over the antecedentless "it" and the passive voice "was" and get a prudish editor's nausea before they even hit "thing." But Roberts has a surer hand. So, I have great hope that he will bring a fine writing style to the Supreme Court.

Of course, after the nice opening sentence we have to read this:
As a result, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must now decide when affiliates of Canadian utilities -- utilities not subject to FERC jurisdiction -- may sell power at market-based rates in the United States.

Jeez, D.C. Circuit Court cases are dull -- all that federal regulatory dreariness. Everyone keeps jabbering It's the second highest court in the land after the U.S. Supreme Court. What they fail to say is that it's the first most boring court in the land. What good fortune to be nominated to the Supreme Court, but what double good fortune to escape from the D.C. Circuit. All you Fifth Circuit judges who didn't get picked: at least you have an interesting case load where you are.

(The quoted case is boringly called Consumers Energy Company v. Federal Energy Commission, 367 F.3d 915 (2004).)

15 comments:

Matt said...

Roberts is unquestionably a good and witty writer from what I've read of his stuff--it's crisp, well-reasoned, and not purely ideologically driven, which is a positive sign.

The other "plus" of appointing a D.C. Circuit Judge (even one of longer standing like Ruth Bader Ginsberg), is that while the court is highly "prestigious," there are a bunch of hot-button issues it doesn't touch on a regular basis (or at all) by virtue of its situs--abortion, death penalty, voting rights/redistricting cases, rarely (if ever) wind up before the D.C. Circuit nothaving a paper trail there could certainly be seen as a plus.

Beldar said...

Oh, no. I agree that the DC Circuit is boring. But it's way behind the the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. That court is so boring that you'd completely blocked it out of your mind, hadn't you?

John R Henry said...

Thanks for posting that. I think "thing" in this context is perfectly OK and formal.

I think perhaps what Roberts is trying to do is call to mind Wellington's comment after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when he said "It was a close run thing."

I think it would have been better if Roberts had put the word "close" in his statement. Still, looks fine to my non-lawyerly mind.

John Henry

Kevin S. said...

Right on about "thing." A nice old word invented by lawyers (or so I recall) that is now too informal for a lawyer's use! Leave it to lawyers and budding lawyers to excise the economical and satisfying "thing" and replace it with something less punchy. Of all the cumbersome words and phrases lawyers have added to the language, to think this is the thing we want take back (provided, of course, that insofar as said phrase ("thing") can sufficiently identify the object subject matter, then it may be used notwithstanding the fact that there has herewith never been such circumstance.....)

Another word fretted over injudiciously is "stuff," i.e., "the stuff of youth." What's wrong with "stuff"? Not that "stuff" should be used in connection with "things," to say nothing of "what-nots".....

Ann Althouse said...

Beldar: Yes. No one ever thinks about it. Unless they are well paid for it.

Ann Althouse said...

Kevin, John: I once read a student evaluation that criticized me for using the word "thing" in classroom lectures. Too slangy, apparently! I never forgot that.

vnjagvet said...

AA:

Clearly that evaluation did not change your "crisp" use of the language in your Blog. Nor your appreciation of such use in the written work of others!!!

Bruce Hayden said...

Ditto for the Federal Circuit. It does have jurisdiction over some things besides patents, but that I where I have to deal with it. Of course, if you are a patent attorney geek, then maybe it is exciting... But for the rest of you, it is probably more boring than the D.C. Circuit.

peter hoh said...

Love is a many splendored phenomenon.

somross said...

Oh, Ann! Even crisper would be "It was close," not to mention more idiomatic. Nothing wrong with his phrase, though, especially since he was being funny. But "it was a close thing" isn't passive: if he had written, "A plan was created by Benedict Arnold to capture Canada," that would be passive. And dull.

miklos rosza said...

It sounds better heard aloud (in one's mind) than as strictly written. That is, it's more musical.

Ann Althouse said...

Miklos: I think a good writer hears the written word. Bad editors don't and don't understand why you have the sequence of words the way you do. Somross is trying to be rational about word usage. I wouldn't want him editing me.

(But, purely rationally, Somross, the first phrase in that compound sentence is definitely in the passive voice.)

somross said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
somross said...

"It was a close thing" is not passive voice; it is simply an independent clause with a linking verb (was)followed by a predicate noun (thing). Passive voice means x is done by y rather than x does y. (The ball was hit by him rather than he hit the ball.) And hey, I'm a girl, and a pretty good editor, although not particularly rational, as my high school teachers Ruffing and Tucker would attest.

Ann Althouse said...

Somross: Sorry about the sex confusion. Must have been the "Ross." But apparently I know you from high school...

Seems to me the "was" makes it passive, but if there's some additional detail to the analysis, I don't know what it is. Lawrev editors tend to get after you for any use of the verb "to be," and starting off with "It" only seems to make it worse.

I stand by my view that "It was a close thing" is much better than "It was close."