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Horace and Google:

A colleague asked me: Which is correct, "premier lawyers in the country" or "premiere lawyers in the country"? I was inclined to say "premier" for "foremost," and save "premiere" for "opening night." But a quick dictionary check suggested that "premiere" could mean "foremost," too"; I saw this both in the American Heritage and in the Oxford English Dictionary. So I don't see how one can say that either is "incorrect."

But my colleague, I thought, didn't really want to know which was "correct"; he wanted to know which was better. And for that, it seems to me the answer is the more common term, which is less likely to be jarring, confusing (even briefly), or perceived (even wrongly) to be incorrect. So I Googled, and it turned out that my initial inclination matched usage: "Premier lawyer" got 40 times more hits than "premiere lawyer."

Now I should acknowledge the limitations of this. Sometimes one may consciously prefer the less common term. Sometimes one may want the term that is more common within a particular professional community, and not English usage generally; in particular, if you have free Lexis, you might want to search edited newspapers prose in preference to unedited Internet prose. Sometimes usage is split more evenly, so the results are less definite. (Perhaps the slightly more common term is seen by some, rightly or wrongly, as inferior, so one might want to go with the slightly less common term.) And sometimes the searches might be skewed by false positives (e.g., "Defendants were 'operatives' for B.C. Premier, lawyer argues").

But when one term is 40 times more common than the other, it's a pretty good bet that one should go with the more common term, unless one has a compelling reason to the contrary. In Horace's words, follow "the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Horace Comes to Law School:
  2. Horace and Google:
Houston Lawyer:
If it involves lawyers for the benefit of other lawyers, you should always use the most pretentious spelling. It goes well with the Esq.
6.9.2009 6:15pm
Lior:
What would be the French usage? In particulat, are there two distinct words here, or only one French word with two English spellings?
6.9.2009 6:23pm
oledrunk3 (mail):
Consider that "foremost" (from germanic languages) gives variety to a phrase in which words from romance languages predominate.
6.9.2009 6:23pm
ShelbyC:
Does it matter if they're male or female? That's the distinction if French.
6.9.2009 6:35pm
Randy R. (mail):
Opening at night at the opera is female?
6.9.2009 6:51pm
Tucker (mail):
Ye Olde Premiere Attorneys...
6.9.2009 6:52pm
ys:

Randy R. (mail):
Opening at night at the opera is female?

That's because night is female in French (and most other Indo-European languages that preserved gender).
6.9.2009 6:57pm
Cato The Elder (mail):
What about this? "While" or "Whilst". I feel like they have different sounds which makes them appropriate to use at different times. Is there a grammatical rule I'm ignoring?
6.9.2009 7:02pm
Kevil Hill (www):
I mean this as a compliment to EV -- EV has a way of making the most seemingly inane topics quite interesting. This is a perfect example. I haven't read a complete post by David Bernstein in probably six months, even those with provocative subject matters. But EV makes a post like this and I'm mesmerized for a few minutes as I read and reflect on the entire post. Well done.
6.9.2009 7:08pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
On "while" and "whilst", from World Wide Words:

"Both while and whilst are ancient, though while is older. There’s no difference in meaning between them. For reasons that aren’t clear, whilst has survived in British English but has died out in the US. However, in Britain it is considered to be a more formal and literary word than its counterpart."
6.9.2009 7:14pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Cato the Elder: The two are grammatically identical, so there's no grammatical rule distinguishing them. They are also identical in meaning. But in American English, "whilst" sounds either deliberately foreign or deliberately archaic. If the goal is to be deliberately archaic, that sounds like just the thing for Cato the Elder, but not for revolutionary modernist renegades like me.
6.9.2009 7:17pm
ShelbyC:

Opening at night at the opera is female?


yup. La nuit...
6.9.2009 7:32pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Dictionaries exist to ratify the sloppy writing of the past.

Careful writers would use premier.
6.9.2009 7:41pm
Lior:
ShelbyC &ys: thanks for the clarification. It seems the "popular" usage has some grounds in history.
6.9.2009 8:08pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Harry Eagar: Careful about what?

I agree that "careful writers" should use premier, but that's because I think they should be careful about sticking with current idiom unless they have good reason to depart from it. What do you think they should be careful about? Careful about following the way English was written, say, 200 years ago, on the theory that changes since then were the result of "sloppy writing"? Careful about following the meaning of the word in its source language? Careful about following the True Unchanging Rules Of Right Usage (in which case, where is it exactly that we should get them)? Careful about writing the way you want them to write?
6.9.2009 8:13pm
ShelbyC:
Careful writers would write "That's the distinction in French" instead of "That's the distinction if French" as well.
6.9.2009 8:16pm
Mike G in Corvallis:
I don't want to get into the whole "descriptive versus prescriptive" debate, but if you look at the covers of new magazines, eight or nine times out of ten you'll see the words "PREMIER ISSUE" ...

I suspect that the people who do the cover layouts aren't sure whether "premiere" or "premier" is correct, so they check what's written on the covers of the other magazines that are lying around the office.
6.9.2009 8:44pm
Anderson (mail):
American Heritage uses a "usage panel" of sometimes questionable authority; I dunno the OED's practice, but as a historical dictionary, it's great for what has been done, less so for what one should do.

A good usage guide is better on these points; just don't look in *two* good usage guides ....
6.9.2009 9:42pm
Fub:
Tucker wrote at 6.9.2009 6:52pm:
Ye Olde Premiere Attorneys...
That phrase presents a thorny etymological issue.
6.9.2009 9:44pm
[insert here] delenda est:
Since in French a woman would indeed be une premiere avocate, if consistency with French was the goal, one would use premiere for female lawyers and premier for males (and premier if there was a mix).

Since as I understand it the goal is to communicate in English, a language which does not use gender-specific adjectives, Eugene is quite right but understates the case: there is no reason to use 'premiere'.

While on the subject, 'premier lawyer' is itself a clunking use of language and surely exaggerated, I would form a negative opinion of someone's abilities as a lawyer if they described themself as the premier lawyer in whatever domain.
6.10.2009 1:04am
ReaderY:
It depends on whether the lawyers involved are male or female.
6.10.2009 2:41am
Milhouse (www):

That's because night is female in French (and most other Indo-European languages that preserved gender).

It's female in Hebrew too; I wonder whether the same is true in most or all Semitic languages.
6.10.2009 3:22am
ShelbyC:

Since as I understand it the goal is to communicate in English, a language which does not use gender-specific adjectives, Eugene is quite right but understates the case: there is no reason to use 'premiere'.


Well, sometimes we do for foreign words, as judge Sotomayor just reminded us. Since we appear to use both the French male and Female form, it's quite natural to ask whether or not folks sometimes preserve the gender agreement.
6.10.2009 8:31am
PubliusFL:
ShelbyC: Since we appear to use both the French male and Female form, it's quite natural to ask whether or not folks sometimes preserve the gender agreement.

Good question. Many (but not all) English speakers do preserve the French gender distinctions in pairs like fiancé/fiancée and blond/blonde, after all.
6.10.2009 9:54am
[insert here] delenda est:
If premier is foreign then there are not many English words.

I disagree that we actually 'use' the French female form, rather I think we recognise two words:
- premier, an adjective meaning 'first' and a noun meaning both 'first' and the leader of the government in some political systems; and
- premiere, a verb for the giving of a first performance or show in the arts, and a noun for the opening night or first event of an arts performance or exhibit.
6.10.2009 12:26pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
Which is correct, "premier lawyers in the country" or "premiere lawyers in the country"?
Neither.

IANAL, premier or otherwise, but I do have fifty or so years experience in amateur theater and as a writer.

Over at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/premier you get a noun with both meanings, 1: first in position, rank, or importance, and 2: first in time.

Under this definition both of your constructions fail because, in the words of the Immortal Highlander, “There can be only one.”

Premiere is listed as a verb.

My opinion as a writer is that you have a premier at the theater, and a premiere at the theatre.

As far as attorneys, you can have the premier lawyer, but premiere doesn’t fit.
6.10.2009 12:55pm
ShelbyC:

I disagree that we actually 'use' the French female form, rather I think we recognise two words:
- premier, an adjective meaning 'first' and a noun meaning both 'first' and the leader of the government in some political systems; and
- premiere, a verb for the giving of a first performance or show in the arts, and a noun for the opening night or first event of an arts performance or exhibit.


Well, when we use the second, we're using the French female form, correct? (heh, heh, use the French female form :-))

But it appears that my question has been answered, no, we do not agree premier in the same way we agree, say, fiance.
6.10.2009 1:26pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I once had a case involving a dispute over movie studio participation payments-- one side spoke of the "movie" playing in a "theater" in all their briefs; the other side spoke of the "motion picture" playing in "theatre". Go figure.
6.10.2009 2:29pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Oops. I meant "a 'theatre'".
6.10.2009 2:30pm
ys:

Milhouse:

That's because night is female in French (and most other Indo-European languages that preserved gender).


It's female in Hebrew too; I wonder whether the same is true in most or all Semitic languages.

This is not correct. "Night" in Hebrew is masculine (I should have also written "feminine" instead of "female" when talking about grammar gender; of course "gender" has been appropriated lately to be used in place of "sex"). It is one of the few exceptions in Hebrew where a masculine noun has a feminine ending (most strikingly in plural). Recall for instance "laila tov" where the adjective is masculine. "Night" is feminine in Arabic. This is exactly why I limited my statement to most Indo-European languages (some like English have lost this distinction, and some like Dutch and Scandinavian languages have a different gender classification). Many other major language families (including the ones I am more familiar with, like Uralic and Ibero-Caucasian) have no gender.
6.10.2009 3:28pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
As Anderson notes, the OED is an historical dictionary, not a usage dictionary, and so is the wrong type of reference work for this task. Premiere would be an affectation in this instance,

So, BTW, is theatre as anything but an alternate spelling for theater. There has recently (the last 40 years or so) been an affectation that theater refers to a building, while theatre refers to the art. This is rubbish, even though you will hear theater professors make the claim.

The issue was well-known at William and Mary, where I majored in Theatre and Speech in the 1970's. W&M had the older spelling because the school always played up its 17th and 18th C heritage, and we were (are) the recognised experts on 18th C theater. Theatre is nothing but an older spelling. If people keep getting it wrong for another forty years, it will likely become a correct distinction by force of usage.
6.10.2009 11:08pm
BABH:
"Theatre" is the correct current spelling in British English. Wasn't "theater" one of Noah Webster's bastardizations, along with "color"?
6.12.2009 9:34am