Remember the president who said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is"?
Then there was the presidential candidate who said he "saw" his father in a civil rights march with Martin Luther King. The candidate then spent a couple of days telling us that "saw" didn't necessarily mean he had visually observed the event with his eyes.
Don't normal people in their everyday lives use these basic verbs and know exactly what they mean?
Yes, we know all about figurative speech. We also know about hyperbole. Spare me. We're talking about plain speaking, here.
If you ask me whether I "saw" our mutual friend Joe since we last spoke, my answer is either yes or no. And you know what I meant. I didn't "see" him figuratively.
I never told anyone that I "saw" my dad flying a P-51 Mustang fighter plane over Germany in World War II. You know what? I didn't. I'll tell you what he told me. If you're really interested, I'll refer you to a book about his squadron.
But, that's common sense.
It's always a bad day when people have to explain what they meant by their words. It's a worse day when you have to explain how you want to stretch someone else's words.
Law schools urge aspiring attorneys to write clearly. Old-fashioned run-on sentences that no one understands are out. A standard text is titled "Plain English for Lawyers."
There's a legal "rule of construction" that says where a word is subject to interpretation, and the dispute is taken to court, the courts apply the plain and ordinary meaning.
For example, the New Hampshire Supreme Court was once asked to interpret the meaning of the word "drunkard." The issue was whether the husband in a divorce was a drunkard. The allegations had nothing to do with booze, but rather, an alleged abuse of prescription medication.
Arguably, there was a financial difference in the outcome of the case. The court actually wrote about the plain meaning of "drunkard," referred to a standard dictionary, and concluded that the term does not apply to a prescription medication abuser. For those who think I make this stuff up, see: In the matter of Sarvella, decided November 2006.
In Massachusetts, an inmate went free while attorneys argued over the use of the word "within." State law requires that prosecutors "shall" file a trial request "within 14 days" of an examiner's report in a proceeding regarding a sexually dangerous person. Prosecutors did include a routine jury trial request in their initial petition. But they did not file the mandatory request after the report.
Admitting they filed nothing within 14 days of the report, prosecutors claimed the prior reference should suffice. But, the Supreme Judicial Court said the plain meaning of "within" is "inside the limits or extent of in time, degree or distance." Case dismissed. (Commonwealth v. Gross, November 2006.)
Carpenters have hammers and cutting tools. Auto mechanics have wrenches and computer diagnostics. Chefs have kitchen utensils. Others, including writers, attorneys and politicians, have words as their basic tools. Those who do well in any occupation master the use of their tools.
My supervisor back in the days when I unloaded tractor-trailers had a saying when the help quibbled. The supervisor would tell us: "Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don't be mean when you say it."
Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover, Mass. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.