Tuesday, March 13, 2007

One Count of Stupid Shorthand

The Justice Department did not fire a bunch of "attorneys." OK, they were attorneys, if you accept the tarted-up term as a synonym for lawyers, but to use it as an all-purpose shorthand for U.S. attorneys makes about as much sense as using it to describe Supreme Court justices.

The generic term for those who hold the title U.S. attorney is federal prosecutor, or simply prosecutor. In fact, it's a good idea to work prosecutor into any story on the matter even if U.S. attorney isn't too long for the headline specs or too frequently mentioned as to become monotonous: There are bound to be readers out there without a firm grasp of what exactly a U.S. attorney does.


Jo-Anne said...

The Canadian Oxford uses them interchangeably, though you don't hear "attorney" used much (at least, I don't).
An attorney, according to the Oxford, may be a prosecutor or a counsel for the defendant. Perhaps "attorney" is just not specific enough to describe the role and that is why it isn't used.
I'm out of my league when it comes to legal terminology.

mupu@mupu.com said...

Bill, if I may address the previous caller's comment ...

Jo-Anne, I believe you're trying to find the distinction between "attorney" and "lawyer," when what we're addressing here is the distinction between "attorney" and "U.S. attorney."

Since you're from Canada, the misunderstanding is, er, understandable. But we Americans could also benefit from a crash course on the terminology, so here goes.

All U.S. attorneys are attorneys, but very few attorneys are U.S. attorneys. All U.S. attorneys are American attorneys, but very few American attorneys are U.S. attorneys. Not all attorneys are lawyers (in the veeeery generic sense of the word), but all attorneys-at-law are. All U.S. attorneys are attorneys-at-law (lawyers).

(We could add to the confusion by talking about the Canadian terms solicitor and barrister. But let's not.)

In Wyoming, we have one U.S. attorney, Bill Downes. He is an agent (an attorney) for the U.S. government. He works at the pleasure of the president and reports to the Attorney General.

U.S. attorneys are federal prosecutors. They can also go on the defence (defense in the U.S.) in cases in which the government is the accused party.

By the way, Jo-Anne, I see that you're a new contributor to Blogslot. Welcome! (You can thank me later for saving you from one of Bill's rants.)

Jo-Anne said...

Mupu, thanks for the explanation, even if it feels like finding your way through a legal fog.
And, thanks for the welcome.

Jo-Anne said...

I was reviewing your book today and came across your explanation of these legal terms. I'm happy to announce that the fog has cleared (see my previous post).
I get it now; you can be a lawyer, but you're not an attorney until somebody hires you. Like you said, you can be a lifeguard, but not a rescuer.
Makes sense now.

Bill said...

Thanks, Jo-Anne. It's not a crucial distinction, but it's a nice one. Some of my wisest colleagues point to this as an example of pickiness gone way wrong, but my feeling is that if you're going to alternate the words you might as well have a coherent reason for choosing between them.

Jo-Anne said...

I also remember reading what you had to say about the use of "like" and "such as" and the disctinction between the two.
I've been copy editing articles where like is used repeatedly when it should be "such as" or "including" or a new sentence ...
But what reader would know this, much less care? Is it a distinction worth making?

Bill said...

"Like" vs. "such as" isn't a huge deal. In fact, the New York Times pretty much insists on "like" for such cases.

I leave "like" alone when the example given is purely illustrative, when something like (!) "character actors like Mason Adams" includes Mason Adams to remind people just what a character actor is, as opposed to referring to a group of character actors that includes Mason Adams but not all character actors. (Note that a comma would also be part of that distinction -- "character actors, such as Mason Adams" would be read differently than "character actors such as Mason Adams.")

But to routinely use "like" to mean "such as" dilutes our ability to use "like" to mean "like." I suppose it says something about the rarity of such cases that I keep using the same example, but here I go again: Slot-machine-addicted moralizer William Bennett railed against behavior like gambling, not behavior such as gambling.