There is a general feeling in society that lawyers are masters at using language to fool others. When I take depositions, the party being deposed is often suspicious that I am using my questions to “trick” them. I’m not. If my questions seem deceitful, it is probably because I have been inartful in my phrasing. Or it may be because the deponent simply doesn’t like the question. Of course, politicians are famous for this. They have their talking points and they are coached to turn any question into an opportunity to focus on these talking points.
I am fascinated by the English language and how words or phrases can have completely different meanings among different people. The failure to attach the same meaning to a certain word or phrase leads to conflict, lawsuits and even war.
Consider even the use or misuse of a comma:
“The undersigned will not do anything which will result in detrimental harm to the project.”
“The undersigned will not do anything, which will result in detrimental harm to the project.”
Two sentences; one comma; two totally different meanings.
You may run across others. I once heard of a deposition where an executive was being asked whether there had been a large number of complaints against the company about a certain product. The answer: “There wasn’t a single complaint.” What does that mean? While it was meant to convey that there had been no complaints, it really meant that there had actually been a whole chorus of complaints.
Then there is the vague language that may accompany recommendations. Here is a sample recommendation for a company or employee that was less than honest in terms of (mis)handling money:
“I would not think twice about giving him a position with financial responsibility. For the job he did, we now find ourselves deeply indebted. I’m sorry we let him get away.”
Or the recommendation for the office inebriate:
“John is responsible for writing reports. He often goes through several drafts before he feels the report is correct. The number of reports he can produce, while staggering, does not accurately reflect his talent. I can understand why he is seeking other employment, since I believe his real talent may be getting wasted here.”
While we are on the topic, here is a scene from “Liar, Liar” you might enjoy.