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Conclusory:

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a first-year student of mine used the word "conclusory" instead of "conclusive." I corrected him -- I was polite (I think), but my job is to teach students and part of the job is to teach them how to use words properly. A "conclusory argument," I pointed out, is an argument that is long on conclusions and short on supporting evidence; "conclusive evidence," on the other hand, is evidence that points persuasively to a certain conclusion.

To my surprise, a week later I read this Language Log item, written by linguistics professor Mark Liberman:

A few days ago, when Senator Arlen Specter was asked about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' statement on the U.S. Attorney firings, he dismissed it as "conclusory". This usage puzzled me; it's missing from the standard (non-legal) dictionaries; and it was also news to Steve of the Language Hat blog, who must surely be in the top thousandth of a percentile or so in knowledge of English vocabulary.

Huh? What do you mean, missing from standard English dictionaries? Well, sure enough, here's the entry from the Oxford English Dictionary: "Relating or tending to a conclusion; conclusive." And from the Random House, by way of dictionary.com, "conclusive."

Shocking as it is to me -- and to several lawyers that I talked to -- but "conclusory," which I'd long assumed was a standard English term with the definition I just gave, is actually legalese. We lawyers are just so steeped in legalese that there's some legalese we no longer recognize as anything but normal.

In any event, my instructions to my class were correct: In legal discourse, "conclusory" indeed means something very different than "conclusive." But of course it makes sense that the student didn't grasp this; he hasn't yet become acculturated to legal lingo the way I have.

liberty (mail) (www):
Interesting. I know it as having the legal meaning too. I think maybe it has wandered out of the legan jargon into academic-speak a bit. It is surprising that that definition isn't in the OED though!
5.16.2007 2:48pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Also, at least one online dictionary has it as the main definition:

conclusory
One entry found for conclusory.
Main Entry: con·clu·so·ry
Pronunciation: k&n-'klüs-rE, -'klü-s&-
Function: adjective
: consisting of or relating to a conclusion or assertion for which no supporting evidence is offered [conclusory allegations]
http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/conclusory
5.16.2007 2:51pm
Dionysius (mail):
The American Heritage Dictionary has a definition for "conclusory" that seems to be similar to "conclusive".
5.16.2007 2:53pm
DDG:
I've generally assumed it is legalese because no spell checker I have recognizes "conclusory".
5.16.2007 2:56pm
Bruce F. Webster (mail) (www):
It happens in other domains as well. When I worked in the US space program nearly 30 years ago (ack! has it be that long?), I quickly discovered that 'nominal' was used to mean 'within expected/desired limits' (e.g., "all systems nominal"), as opposed to the meanings I was used to: 'token' ("nominal fee") or 'in name only' ("nominal head of government").

Oh, and the correct phrase is "on orbit", not "in orbit". :-) ..bruce..
5.16.2007 3:13pm
Steve Lubet (mail):

Shocking as it is to me -- and to several lawyers that I talked to -- but "conclusory," which I'd long assumed was a standard English term with the definition I just gave, is actually legalese.


Shouldn't you say "several lawyers whom I talked to"? Or has "that" become a standard pronoun? Seemed worth asking in a post about "how to use words properly."
5.16.2007 3:24pm
Zathras (mail):
Steve Lubet:

EV: Shocking as it is to me -- and to several lawyers that I talked to -- but "conclusory," which I'd long assumed was a standard English term with the definition I just gave, is actually legalese.


Shouldn't you say "several lawyers whom I talked to"?

And shouldn't it be "talked with," rather than "talked to?" If it were merely "talked to," they would not have said anything.

To say nothing of ending the clause with the preposition in the first place....
5.16.2007 3:31pm
Russ Mitten (mail):
An etymology of "conclusory" can be found in Bryan Garner's book "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage" (2d ed.), which encourages its continued use.
5.16.2007 3:46pm
Shelby (mail):
Hmm. Before attending law school in 1996 I was a book editor, then a freelance writer and editor for several years in the general and business (not legal) markets. I can't recall changing my view on 'conclusory'; I think I've always regarded it as EV does now, though it's possible I was influenced in that regard by legal writing.
5.16.2007 3:57pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
Being steeped in legalese is one of the reasons I like this blog. Aside from the continuing challenge of trying to figure out who won any of the cases mentioned here,* I always learn new words!

* Seems the losing side (and dissenting opinion,) is commented on more often and robustly than the winner here, which leaves me scratching my head betimes.
5.16.2007 3:59pm
Adeez (mail):
On a related note, what's the deal with "impliedly?" I've only heard/seen it in law school, and after three years, I still couldn't see how it differs from "implicitly."

If it has an actual meaning, I'd appreciate if someone could enlighten me.

If my instinct is right, and it's just another way of saying "implicitly," then score this as another reason why people hate lawyers.
5.16.2007 4:00pm
Felix Sulla (mail):

Shouldn't you say "several lawyers whom I talked to"?
Actually, I believe the most correct formulation is, "Several lawyers with whom I have talked." Even better would be, "Several lawyers with whom I have spoken." ;-)
5.16.2007 4:22pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
Yeah, yeah -- I understand all of the preposition points, but I think informality is just fine in blogging. I was actually asking a serious question. I have lately noticed the frequent substitution of "that" for "whom," and I am wondering if it becoming acceptable, especially when a careful writer such as EV uses it.
5.16.2007 4:29pm
Mahlon:
I can't imagine why it would be a purely legal term. If anything, it is one based in logic (someting we seem to be missing in the law these days). I, too, cannot recall a time when the word was not a part of my vocabulary. Live and learn.

BTW - EV I love these linguistic observations. Keep it up.
5.16.2007 4:59pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
This is one of those (rare) cases in which legalese is an improvement over ordinary English. We don't need two words for "conclusive," and it's useful to have a word for "conclusory" (in the lawyers' sense). Unfortunately, the Language Log people mostly mocked us, rather than embracing our contribution to the language.
5.16.2007 5:13pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
onelook.com has 8 definitions for conclusory.
5.16.2007 5:34pm
Crust (mail):
Zathrus:
To say nothing of ending the clause with the preposition in the first place....

As Churchill once said about that rule, "that is a lot of nonsense, up with which I will not put."
5.16.2007 5:36pm
Crunchy Frog:

Shouldn't you say "several lawyers whom I talked to"? Or has "that" become a standard pronoun? Seemed worth asking in a post about "how to use words properly."

That would imply that said lawyers were, in fact, people. A very conclusory assertion, indeed.
5.16.2007 5:56pm
Waldensian (mail):
Another word that has acquired a legalese definition is "redact." Litigators use it to mean "obscured" or "defaced," i.e.,

"we will give you that document in redacted form"
"we will redact that document"

usually means we will blot out something in there that we don't want you to see.

All well and good, but I can't find that precise definition in the dictionary. Generally redact means to "frame" or "prepare for publication." The definition closest to the legalese is probably "edit."

Meanwhile:

To say nothing of ending the clause with the preposition in the first place....

Oh Lord, save us from this errant pedantry. Next we'll be told that we can't split infinitives, or use "loan" as a verb. Get your boot off my verbiage!
5.16.2007 5:56pm
Felix Sulla (mail):
Perhaps my favorite quote from the masterpiece of American cinema that was "Beavis and Butthead Do America":

"Agent Bork: "You know that guy who's camper they were whackin' off in?"
Agent Flemming [voiced by Robert Stack]: Bork! You are a federal agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition..."
5.16.2007 5:57pm
Federal Dog:
"I have lately noticed the frequent substitution of "that" for "whom," and I am wondering if it becoming acceptable,"


No: It is plainly incorrect grammar that hurts the eye and ear.
5.16.2007 6:09pm
Guest 51607:

Agent Flemming [voiced by Robert Stack]: Bork! You are a federal agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition...

I recently sat through a very long trial in which the lead prosecutor had a grating tendency to end every question about duration of time with the word "for"— e.g., "How long did you hold that job for?"; "How long were you in school for?" I'm not quite sure if my impulse to grit my teeth every time he asked such a question was due to the fact that he was ending on a preposition, or with the sheer redundancy of the word "for" in that context.
5.16.2007 6:20pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Fowler notwithstanding, there is nothing incorrect about ending a sentence or clause with a preposition. See also: "Split Infinitive" and "hopefully" meaning "it is to be hoped that".

And before anyone decides to complain, the relative positions of periods and quotation marks is a style issue, not a grammatical issue. Suffice it to say that I don't follow AP on this.
5.16.2007 6:27pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):
Federal Dog:


No: It is plainly incorrect grammar that hurts the eye and ear.


I don't think you can call it plainly incorrect when so many people do it . . . and to my ear, "whom" sounds far more awkward and unpleasant in the sentence in question than "that" does. "Whom" seems to be vanishing from English speech.

I know that I didn't learn about "whom" until my high school German classes when we all had such trouble with the distinction between "wer" and "wem" because none of us made the distinction between "who" and "whom" in our colloquial English writing or conversation. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever use "whom" in normal conversation, I've only ever used it in very formal writing &speaking contexts

"Who/Whom" may be going the way of "shall/will" (I admit that I'm not sure what the difference is supposed to be) and "can/may" (this one I will defend to my dying day).
5.16.2007 6:50pm
Special Guest:
"Hopefully" is ok??? Oh happy, happy day.

And I have no problem with the litigators' use of "redact" to mean documents with the privileged/confidential portions taken out. What other word would you use? It's all fine and well to criticize legalese that obscures meaning, but the legal profession can certainly have its own terms of art.
5.16.2007 6:50pm
Federal Dog:
Andrew:

People say all sorts of things that are plainly incorrect. That fact alone does not make the errors correct. It simply makes them common. Bad schools that value tuition and retention over education are to blame.
5.16.2007 7:03pm
R. Richard Schweitzer (mail):
And oh maestro of meanings, since when are things different than one another rather than different from one another.

Whilst we are afoot, can we remember the gerund?

We appreciate your being here; not you being here.

R. Richard Schweitzer
5.16.2007 7:20pm
BobH (mail):
Federal Dog says, "People say all sorts of things that are plainly incorrect. That fact alone does not make the errors correct. It simply makes them common."

The flaw in that argument, Dog, is that over time, if enough people make the "errors," the "errors" stop being "common"; indeed, they stop being "errors" and become "correct." If this were not true, we would all still be speaking Middle English. Language changes, Dog, and the notion of what is "grammatically correct" changes as well. It's life, Dog. Get used to it.
5.16.2007 7:32pm
Federal Dog:
Bob:

The usage in question is in no way normative. Find a single language reference source that indicates the usage is correct: You can't find it. It is simply incorrect. Whetever may or may not happen at some unspecified date in the future is irrelevant.
5.16.2007 7:50pm
K Bennight (mail):
After many years of using "conclusory" as lawyers do, for a reason I don't recall, I looked it up a few years ago. It was not in the dictionary. I came away with the impression I should say "conclusional" in place of "conclusory." I don't do so often, because it sounds so odd to me.
5.16.2007 8:21pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):
Federal Dog:

The usage in question is in no way normative. Find a single language reference source that indicates the usage is correct: You can't find it. It is simply incorrect. Whetever may or may not happen at some unspecified date in the future is irrelevant.

You, sir, are obviously a prescriptivist, rather than a descriptivist, in your approach to language, which puts you in the august company of, among others, L'Académie française.

Using "that" in place of "whom" may be grammatically incorrect, and is certainly incorrect in formal speech, but firstly, a blog post is not formal speech, and secondly, I think my original point still stands: if it was as obviously incorrect as you seem to think it is, the vast majority of colloquial speakers of American English wouldn't be making that error.

However, to be perfectly fair, it probably would be obviously incorrect to most people if our schools actually taught English grammar in English classes instead of focusing on English literature. I learned more about English grammar in German class than in English class in high school. In all honesty, I don't remember learning much about grammar after learning the basics in elementary school.
5.16.2007 8:44pm
Stating the Obvious:
In medicine, "emergent" has become the equivalent of "emergency" or "emergently", as in "the emergent study", rather than implying a coming into existence or causal arrival. I notice this is now in dictionaries, though I never heard this use until medical school.
5.16.2007 8:47pm
Federal Dog:
Andrew, I am making the simple point that the usage is not correct. You are perfectly free to speak in whatever way you wish, and to be judged intellectually on that basis. People are not things. It's not controversial to use correct pronouns to mark that distinction.
5.16.2007 8:59pm
Alan Gunn:
The Oxford Dictionary of English Usage, citing examples going back to Wycliffe's translation of the Bible in 1389, concludes that "[i]n current usage, that refers to persons or things." It describes the position advanced by Federal Dog as "common but unfounded."

I'm sort of a prescriptivist myself, but one must be sensible about one's targets. There is no reason to object to using "that" to refer to a person. I know of no modern usage guide that says there is.
5.16.2007 9:16pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage concurs: "It may be that some carryover from the 18th-century general dislike of that has produced the apparently common, yet unfounded, notion that that may be used to refer only to things." (Bold added for emphasis.)

The article goes on at some length to demonstrate both the historical and current use of that to refer to people. The claim made by Federal Dog (to wit, "Find a single language reference source that indicates the usage is correct: You can't find it. It is simply incorrect") is entirely without foundation.
5.16.2007 10:58pm
Federal Dog:
Sorry, but I cannot verify either quote. For all I know, you are inventing things, but then again, I really don't care.

Again, as stated, you should feel free to speak in whatever way you like. I would never use that/which to refer to people. Further, you shouldn't feel so terribly threatened by my comments. As already stated, your language is your own and you will be measured by it. That's your business, not mine.
5.17.2007 9:04am
non-native speaker:
"A "conclusory argument," I pointed out, is an argument that is long on conclusions and short on supporting evidence"

In this context, does "conclusory" have a pejorative meaning? I mean, is it always a bad thing to say of an argument that it is conclusory (because it is short on supporting evidence), i.e. similiar to "poor" argument, or is just a type of argument that can be used or even one is supposed to use in certain cases? Thanks.
5.17.2007 9:15am
Federal Dog:
My OED shows the use of that/which to refer to a person is a limited pejorative usage, designed to reduce a person to a thing. My Merriam-Webster does not even state this usage as a possibility, so I cannot verify the above claim.
5.17.2007 9:22am
pilight (mail) (www):
As a non-lawyer, I can attest that I have never used nor heard anyone use the word "conclusory".
5.17.2007 9:53am
Alan Gunn:
Per Doug Sundseth:


Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage concurs: "It may be that some carryover from the 18th-century general dislike of that has produced the apparently common, yet unfounded, notion that that may be used to refer only to things." (Bold added for emphasis.)


Yes. I meant "Webster's," and that's what I was quoting. There seems to be some version of Murphy's law that says people writing about usage will make mistakes.

It's interesting that many of those who become indignant about others' "grammatical errors" are most upset by violations of imaginary rules. Failure to follow Fowler's proposed distinction between which and that (which Fowler himself conceded was not an actual rule of English usage) inspires some people to genuine anger.
5.17.2007 9:55am
Federal Dog:
Hehehe. I'm just telling you that I can't confirm your statements in my OED or Merriam Websters.

Hey! Here's something that will really make you swoon, so do not read further unless you have smelling salts at hand: I also mark the difference between subject and object cases in comparative constructions!

e.g., "He speaks better English than they" (as opposed to, "He speaks better English than them.").

Swoon away!
5.17.2007 12:30pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Note that there's a difference between a "Dictionary" (unqualified) and a "Dictionary of [] Usage". Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Nth Edition is a very different book from (or "to" or "than" in some idiolects) Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. By the way, imputing dishonesty to your opponents without cause is unlikely to result in your argument being seen more charitably.

Further, moving the goalposts from "Find a single language reference source that indicates the usage is correct: You can't find it. It is simply incorrect" to "Again, as stated, you should feel free to speak in whatever way you like." is amusing, but not terribly convincing.

Finally, if you want to learn how to fly a Cessna 172, I wouldn't recommend picking up Jane's All the World's Aircraft. Similarly, if you want to learn how to use words, I don't recommend picking up a dictionary.
5.17.2007 12:46pm
Federal Dog:
Yeah, I know. I can't confirm your comments.
5.17.2007 1:43pm
Fub:
Alan Gunn wrote at 5.17.2007 8:55am:
It's interesting that many of those who become indignant about others' "grammatical errors" are most upset by violations of imaginary rules. Failure to follow Fowler's proposed distinction between which and that (which Fowler himself conceded was not an actual rule of English usage) inspires some people to genuine anger.
So, what do some people bring these imaginary rule books other people don't like to be preached to out of up for?
5.17.2007 1:47pm
Punctilius Maximus:
Of course, legalese is a distinct language. When a layperson says "effectively," it means, more or less, efficaciously; when a lawperson says it, it means "in effect." Ordinarily, "sanctioned" means permitted; in the courthouse it means mulcted or otherwise punished. In common parlance, "privileged" means permissible. In fancy parlance, on the other hand, it may mean the precise opposite.
5.17.2007 3:44pm
markm (mail):

Another word that has acquired a legalese definition is "redact." Litigators use it to mean "obscured" or "defaced," i.e.,

"we will give you that document in redacted form"
"we will redact that document"

usually means we will blot out something in there that we don't want you to see.

Waldensian, it's not just legalese. I first encountered redact long ago, in an Air Force class on handling classified material, and it was used precisely for deleting or blacking out information that wasn't to be released along with the rest of the document.

You might remove whole pages from the copy for release, replacing them with a page noting the deletion, or you might photocopy a page, black out part with a heavy black marker, copy it again. The final copy was released, while the blacked-out copy should be destroyed in one of the approved ways for destroying outdated classified documents, since the original ink or toner would be chemically distinct from the the black marker, making it possible (although very difficult) to recover the redacted text.

By the way, if you redact a document for on-line, how do you ensure that the blacked-out words or pictures are actually gone, not just covered up? I recall hearing of cases where this wasn't properly done, and private data was recovered with just a few keystrokes.
5.17.2007 5:06pm
CrosbyBird:
"Who/Whom" may be going the way of "shall/will" (I admit that I'm not sure what the difference is supposed to be) and "can/may" (this one I will defend to my dying day).

Shall/Will is a little complicated, but here's how I understand it.

In the first person, it is a simple objective statement of fact. "I shall be in the city tomorrow." This has been all but completely phased out in modern American English (we tend to use will). Some people will still say "Shall I..." but most people simply used the word "should" instead.

In the second or third person, shall carries with it a weight of obligation or promise. That's why it appears in contracts both properly:

"Owner shall provide tenant with three days notice before entering apartment."

and improperly:

"The door shall be locked at all times."

The Owner above is in a position to promise, assert, or subject himself to a requirement. A door has no ability to accept obligation.

I shall close the door. (statement of fact)
I will close the door. (promise)
Bill/You will be here on Tuesday. (statement of fact)
Bill/You shall be here on Tuesday. (obligation)
We shall never forget the Alamo. (fact)
We will never forget the Alamo. (promise)
They will not eat in the classroom. (fact)
They shall not eat in the classroom. (prohibition)
5.17.2007 5:08pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):

Andrew, I am making the simple point that the usage is not correct. You are perfectly free to speak in whatever way you wish, and to be judged intellectually on that basis. People are not things. It's not controversial to use correct pronouns to mark that distinction.

And I'm not disagreeing that's it's incorrect. What I disagree with you about is whether or not it's obviously incorrect, because if it was obviously incorrect, you wouldn't see people making that particular error all the time.
5.17.2007 5:11pm
Mackenzie (mail) (www):
I've always liked this passage:

After painstaking deliberation, we have decided that we like the word “conclusory,” and we are distressed by its omission from the English language. We now proclaim that henceforth “conclusory” is appropriately used in the opinions of this court. Furthermore, its usage is welcomed in briefs submitted for this court's review. Webster's, take heed!


Greenwood v. Wierdsma, 741 P.2d 1079, 1086 n.3 (Wyo. 1987)
5.20.2007 12:44pm