July 9, 2006

After an absence, "absent."

Sasha Volokh is back at Volokh Conspiracy after an absence of 2 years. It's nice to see him back and nice to get a chance to see what's the first thing he wants to talk about when he gets back. It's the surpassingly nerdy dual topic of the way anyone can contribute information about word usage to the Oxford English Dictionary and whether the use of the word "absent" as a preposition is really, as some blog commenter recently said, just a lawyer's tic.

Don't get me wrong. I love this subject matter. The lawyer's "absent" has been driving me crazy for years, and I love almost any sort of discussion of the OED. My iPod Shuffle contains Simon Winchester's unabridged reading of "The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary." So I'm completely on board with the nerdiness Sasha brings to his reemergence as a VConspirator.

Anyway, Sasha came up with some info on the prepositional use of "absent," which he puts in OED style:
1888 South Western Reporter VIII. 898 If the deed had been made by a stranger to the wife, then a separate estate in her would not have been created, absent the necessary words; but, being made to the wife by the husband, a separate estate, as against him, was the result. 1893 South Western Reporter XII. 629 Absent any evidence to the contrary, a proper and legitimate purpose will be presumed. 1898 South Western Reporter XLV. 303 Absent any one of these ingredients, there is no contract. 1906 South Western Reporter XCIV. 591 Absent one of these ingredients, there is no contract. 1914 South Western Reporter CLXXII. 17 A mere barren and abandoned conspiracy sounding in words, but jejune of acts or results, is not actionable, absent a statute so declaring. 1929 South Western Reporter (2d series) XVIII. 490 Absent a tender of an instruction properly defining said words, it was not error for the court to fail to do so. 1938 Federal Suppl. XXV. 861-62 The design, absent the color and display thereby created, is not more ornamental than many types of similar shoes.
This doesn't refute the blog commenter, of course. It demonstrates the ugly lawyer's use of the word. Is it limited to lawyers? It's so often used by lawyers that it's hard to believe it hasn't infected nonlegal writing, but it's still ugly and feels abnormal. I'd recommend avoiding it even in legal writing, precisely because it sounds like legalese.

11 comments:

Dave said...

I use absent as a preposition all the time. And I'm not a lawyer.

Captain Ned said...

I've used absent in that manner for years. Like Dave IANAL but most of my working life has been spent in close proximity to lawyers. I'm sure that's where I picked it up.

Dave said...

Yeah I should have added that, I too, have spent a lot of time around lawyers. I take medicine for the affliction every day.

reader_iam said...

Although I later found out that the use of "absent" as a preposition started in legal writing, I picked up its usage as a preposition from a history professor whom I admired early on in college (this would have been around 1980). It's frequently used in the business world, and I recall a boss of mine (at a financial service company in the 'mid-80s) often using it in letters.

The use of "absent" as a preposition is contained in a number of dictionaries, and the issue has also been addressed in, for example, The Columbia Guide to Standar American Usage. Note the 1993 date in this link, and the fact that the way the entry is written indicates that the broader use has been accepted for some time, as opposed to being a "new" thing. The example they give is similar to the kind of way in which I personally have most often heard it used--but, obviously, since I'm not a lawyer and am not immersed in that world, I would have no point of reference or comparison.

Now, however, I'll have worry about using this construction for fear someone will suspect me of being a lawyer! ; )

Joseph Hovsep said...

I use the absent as a preposition and I for one don't think its ugly. I think its concise, efficient, clear.

Dave said...

Notwithstanding any comments to the contrary, absent a better explanation of why one ought not to use as a preposition the word "absent" I will continue to do so.

Now, if that is not a sublime demonstration of stilted legal language, I don't know what is.

John Jenkins said...

Dave, you should have put in a moreover somewhere, perhaps an inasmuch or insofar.

reader_iam said...

What, no "whereas" or "heretofore"? Or even "pursuant to"?

Dave said...

Pursuant to some commenters' suggestions that my earlier, finely-wrought legal prose was not sufficiently lawyerly. Now therefore, in consideration of the foregoing, absent any other parties' objection, I will continue to use as a preposition the word "absent" ("the word").

Moreover, should any other party disagree with my stance, inasmuch as it is their right to do so, I will ignore said advice in favor of my current usage of the word.

There, how does that sound?

Brian said...

Ann exclaims: "The lawyer's 'absent' has been driving me crazy for years."

Hmm. In light of the above posted comments, it appears your journey toward craziness will continue, absent your exercise of the power to delete posted comments.

lucia said...

I don't think the construction itself that makes something sound like legalese. This is how I see it used:

"Absent dissipation, the two-dimensional pressure and density of a given fluid element scale as P , and the internal energy per unit mass is P/( 1) ."

(ref. GB Field, SM Carroll - Physical Review D, 2000 - APS )

I quiet like that sentence. The construction permited the writers to focus on the result (i.e. pressure and density scale as P) instead of the assumption (i.e. dissipation is zero.) It's also compact.