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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."

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Horace Comes to Law School:

A law professor e-mailed me this (prompted by my Correcting Students' Usage Errors Without Making Errors of Our Own:

Over the years, I have tried to get students to use "garnishee" as a verb, as in "to garnishee an employee's wages" rather than to garnish wages. I say "to garnish wages" is to sprinkle parsley but even as I say it I think I sound pedantic. Any thoughts?

Here's what I said in response: I don't teach in the field, so my judgment might not be good here; but I've always much preferred "garnish." True, "garnish" is also used for food, but English speakers are quite familiar with words that have vastly different meanings; no-one really thinks even for a moment about the limbs of forest animals, for instance, when they hear about "bear arms." So I doubt that "garnish" is even distracting. And garnish certainly isn't wrong: The Oxford English Dictionary attests it to 1577 (three centuries earlier than "garnishee" as a verb), and Black's of course lists it as well.

What's more, "garnishee" strikes me as sounding too much like a noun based on the verb, much as "employee" or "mortgagee." At first, that's all I thought it was; some years ago, I learned that it is indeed used as a verb, but it still sounds unpleasant to my ears (though again I stress that this isn't my field).

But rather than just relying on my ear, let me suggest that we go with Horace, and follow "the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language." A Westlaw search for ((garnish garnished) +5 wages) & date(> 1/1/2000) reports 675 hits, seemingly (from looking at the first page) almost entirely genuine and not false positives. A search for ((garnishee garnisheed) +5 wages) & date(> 1/1/2000) reports 23 hits. One of those is labeled "[sic]," and 12 use "garnishee" as a noun and not a verb (e.g., "orders the garnishee to withhold attachable wages"). So it looks like there are only 11 hits (one condemnatory, because of the "sic") for "garnishee" as a verb, as compared to 675 for "garnish."

That, I think, strongly counsels against the "garnishee" usage. Some people, such as the "sic"ing court (the Second Circuit), might think "garnishee" is wrong. And others who understand and accept the usage would still likely be distracted.

So it seems to me that students are better off learning to use the familiar and broadly accepted "garnish," notwithstanding the possible (but in my view unlikely) association this may briefly create in the reader's mind with parsley, rather than the much rarer "garnishee."

I'm pleased to report that my correspondent e-mailed me back to say that this argument "convinced [him] to go back to garnish as a verb." What do you think?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Horace Comes to Law School:
  2. Horace and Google:
46 Comments