« Seven Up? On the Rocks. | Main | Yard Version 6.0 »

Fascista Friday: Author and Attorney

If this is your first time reading a Fascista post, please read the disclaimers first.

Thanks to everyone who has written to me with requests and suggested topics. I've made a list (sorry, Brillig; no spreadsheet yet) and will address them in the future. Keep 'em coming! I love your feedback.

I'm a writer; Patrick is a lawyer. Today I take on the misusage of two words related to the professions we have chosen: 'author' and 'attorney.' Despite what you probably hear in everyday conversation, neither word can stand alone in describing what someone does for a living.

An author is someone who creates something, as in the following examples (emphasis mine):

"The author of our salvation was made perfect through suffering."

"...it will be necessary to provide affidavits establishing the commission of the crime and the identity of the fugitive as the author of the crime."

"As the author of Moby-Dick, quite possibly the greatest American novel, and slippery protomodern works like 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' 'Benito Cereno' and 'Billy Budd,' Melville is a towering presence."

Notice that in the preceding sentences, the word "author" is always followed by "of [something]." Let's say that I'm at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party, the kind where as a conversation opener, someone invariably asks, "So, what do you do?"

I would normally answer, "I'm a writer," but I could also use the words "novelist," "lyricist," "poet," or "essayist," depending on which part of my body of work I feel like highlighting. I would never say, "I'm an author," full stop/period. Never.

The word 'author' demands a modifying prepositional phrase describing the creation. I might say later in the conversation, "I'm the author of Shannon's Mirror," or "I'm a co-author of the essay collection Silent Notes Taken," or (let's all cross our fingers together) "I'm the author of ZF-360, a fantasy novel being published next year by [reputable publisher]."

This means that the creator of the course title of a class I took my freshman year of college, "Major British Authors Before 1800," employed incorrect usage. Why would an English professor, of all people, fall prey to such folly? I have to assume that s/he thought "Authors" sounded somehow more weighty and important than "Writers." And in fact, Fowler points out that a large portion of usage errors arise from the desire to dress up language; insecurity is often the sorry parent of this desire.

People misuse the word "attorney" for precisely this reason. "Lawyer" has had negative connotations from at least the time of the translation of the King James Bible ("Woe unto you also, ye lawyers!"); these connotations obviously persist today ("A lawyer, a loan shark, and a garbageman are in a bar..."). But here's why "attorney" should not be used as some kind of distancing euphemism.

Patrick went to law school, earned a Juris Doctor degree, and passed the New York State Bar to become a lawyer. But all this didn't make him an attorney.

An attorney is "a person legally appointed by another to act as his or her agent in the transaction of business." This is why when someone grants you a power of attorney (though you may not be a lawyer), you are authorized to act in behalf of that person in specific instances. In this case you would be an attorney-in-fact, as opposed to an attorney-at-law.

If Patrick has no clients, he is not anyone's attorney. Fortunately for us, he does have clients; he is Bill Brohn's attorney, for example. (Trivia: the Attorney General is the main legal adviser to the government.) So, at that same swanky cocktail party, modest, self-deprecating Patrick will declare that he is a plain, ordinary lawyer, not an attorney, and endure the inevitable jokes that ensue.

Can you think of other professions that get dressed up with fancy words to make them sound more important? Other than the two I've addressed here, I can only think of "sanitation engineer." Let me know.

**UPDATED** I am in no way saying that all those who use "author" instead of "writer" or "attorney" instead of 'lawyer' are doing so because they are pretentious. These are common, everyday errors that the unwitting can easily pick up through linguistic "osmosis."

Reader Comments (28)

La Fascista, thank you for the enlightenment! I hadn't previously considered these two usages, which now make perfect sense! I'm always torn between my interest in correct grammar and my linguistical sense of laissez faire (i.e., usage trumps fusty old Latin grammar rules - I'll end a phrase in a preposition if I want to!) Have you noticed that fancy-pants English always leans to the Romance languages for help, while our good old Germanic-rooted words just aren't quite suave enough...?

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSydneyMin

I can't think of any other careers like that (how ironic that you and your hubby claim the only two), but I do hear a lot of usage errors made because people are trying to hard to sound smart--which as you said is probably why people "dress up" the job titles. The most common one I hear is using "I" when it should be "me" such as, "The teacher spoke to him and I." One more grammar issue that gives me a rash. :)

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Lyon

I'm a totally and completely unique author seeking a home near my brother, who is an attorney, but I need a break so I'm going to lay down right here on this totally unique carpet and think about grammar and how I always use it good.

Thanks for always making me feel good about my mad language skillz...

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrillig

Well, well, Miss Writer. I look forward to these Fridays with you! I can think of another occupation that gets 'fancied up': home educator (me). haha, I used that one on my resume!

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteranjmae

*cheeks flame* I guess I'll stop telling everyone I'm an author, then... ;)

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal Liechty

Now that, my dear, was an entertaining and educational experience. Thanks muchly!

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

weatherfolk who call themselves "meteorologists"?
There's one.

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

This just proves that you are also an educator (not to be confused with a mere teacher...) We all learned something new today.

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHeffalump

Well, then...color me edurbated.

May 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJenna Consolo

Uh oh! (or is that Uhoh?)Now I'm feeling unwriterly. The number of times I've put author, so-and-so, says . . .
But I won't make that mistake again! Thanks for the tip, Louisa :-)

May 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Bradshaw

Hmm..the term "artist" is a little that way. It seems anyone can be an artist if they do their thing with passion and panache, even if it's not one of the sanctioned Arts.

Yet I rarely refer to myself as an artist (sounds a bit pretentious in the first person), and nearly never refer to myself as a painter (not to be confused as wielding a giant roller and a gallon of housepaint). Watercolorist is more precise. but that's a lot of syllables for casual conversation.

I'm also a graphic designer, but would never refer to myself as a graphic "artist", which ironically tends to imply more menial production work, more in the trade/tech realm.

My husband is a filmmaker, and they have frequent discussions about being referred to as an auteur of a particular project, usually as a laudatory term, but occasionally with negative connotations, as if an auteur leaves too much of his personal stamp on a given project, or assumes too much credit. So my hubby's technically a writer/producer/director (also known as a "hyphenate" in that industry).

Thanks for the food for thought, Fascista. Always an enjoyable romp.

May 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercharrette

Bless you, Luisa. I sometimes blog about linguistic peeves, but not with your style.

What about doctor? Doesn't it just mean someone with a doctorate degree? Like, remember the weird habit of all the professors at our alma mater being called doctor (I usually didn't, only mostly because I liked to be contrary)? I remember hearing/reading somewhere that only medical doctors should be addressed as "Doctor" when outside their professional setting. When I meet medical doctors outside of a clinical setting, most of them will say, "I'm a physician," or "I'm a [whatever specialist]," not "I'm a doctor."

May 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjaneannechovy

JA, that is an excellent point. My father-in-law, who (as I'm sure you remember) was the head of the Music Department at Columbia for many years, insisted that he be called 'Professor,' not 'Doctor,' since he was not a medical doctor, dentist, or veterinarian. :D

And since my f-i-l is the apex of linguistic perfection (in 20 years, I don't think I've ever witnessed him commit a grammar or usage error either in English OR in French), I trust his judgment.

Calling the profs 'doctor' was only one of many strange customs at our alma mater, as I remember. ;) But I think it is a custom that is becoming more widespread.

May 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

This makes sense to me. If you say, "I'm a writer; I write," people understand. If you said, "I'm an author; I auth," some people would still pretend to understand, and a select few would get your joke. I think you should try this at the next cocktail party.

May 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRadioactive Jam

so if I hired Patrick I could call him "my attorney" but I can't say, when someone asks what he does "he's AN attorney"

May 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpainted maypole

Way cool -- I had never even thought of either. I've always preferred to think of myself as an author rather than a writer because it sounds better. :)

And I can see why you and Annette are such good friends -- I e-mail her my grammar questions all the time.

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTristi Pinkston

How about 'paper and packaging salesman' compared to 'dude who talks on the phone, writes emails and goes to meetings'. I like that one a lot. :D

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

I think I might be in love with you...just a little. Someone as obsessive about grammar and correct word usage!

My pet peeve: couldn't care less vs. could care less. Arrrrgggg!

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJessica G.

Luisa, I'm sorry, but I don't care. It just sounds WAY too cool to say, "I'm an author" and mean it. I shan't stop. Never!!!!

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJames Dashner

Oh, yes, Jessica: that one is on the list. And thanks--it's good to be loved! :D

Dashner, bless your heart, you're so successful that you are completely beyond reproach. I can only hope that one day I, too, will be nationally published and as well-reviewed as you are.

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

Re: doctors... Both of my parents are PhD's, both were professors at the Great and Spacious Building(s). However, it seemed that whenever students or faculty called our house to speak with one of them, my dad was always referred to as Dr. Thomas and my mom was Sister Thomas. It used to irk my dear mother, who, when the caller requested to speak to Dr. Thomas, would say under her breath, "WHICH Dr. Thomas?" hahaha. It sorta became a family joke. Poor Mom. Never quite taken as seriously at the Great and Spacious University as her male counterparts...

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrillig

brillig, I think I had a class from your mom--I wanna say, Honors New Testament? Could be wrong. But if she's who I'm thinking of, I really liked her.

May 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjaneannechovy

JaneAnne, I'm certain it was she. Honors New Testament would have been her special specialty. Small world, eh? :-D I think I'll hop over to your blog to say hi, since replying here is not likely to be noticed. (Hi, Luisa-- thanks for letting us use your comment section for our conversation!)

May 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrillig

I had to look this up for another project today. Looks like even Merriam-Webster has betrayed you and gone the way of changing with the linguistic winds.

MW lists two definitions for "author," and only the SECOND one is transitive, needing a direct object. The main definition of "author" is considered a synonym to "writer."

But because of you, they'll always be distinct in my mind. :)

May 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Lyon

so true those dang english alwasys using romantic languages help

http://www.getcreditsavy.com" REL="nofollow">credit repair

May 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercredit savvy

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>