SCOTUS cites CGEL (props to Justice Gorsuch and the Supreme Court Library)

When grammatical questions come up in cases, the lawyers and judges will want to support their arguments and analyses with citations to books about grammar. Most of the time, they cite books intended for a general audience, such as the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, The Elements of Grammar, Strunk & White, and various books by Bryan Garner; and books intended for lawyers, such as The Grammar and Writing Handbook for Lawyers and (again) various books by Bryan Garner.

Unfortunately, none of those books gives an adequate description of English grammar, which is a subject that is much more complex than most people realize. If you’re looking for a book that can speak about the subject reliably and with authority, the leading candidates are two books that are both known by the initials CGEL.

One is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), whose main co-authors are Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. The other is the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. If you’re dubious about my statement regarding the complexity of English grammar, you should note that both of these books are enormous: the text of Huddleston & Pullum exceeds 1,700 pages, and Quirk et al.’s exceeds 1,600 pages. If you ever have occasion to hold a copy of either book in your hands, be careful not to drop it on your toes.

Up until today, Huddleston & Pullum had been cited by U.S. courts 24 times, and Quirk et al., 12 times. The courts in question included the federal courts of appeals for the Fifth and Sixth Circuits and the supreme courts of Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. But not the U.S. Supreme Court.

That failure on the part of SCOTUS has now been remedied—as to one of the CGELs, anyway: Huddleston & Pullum. The case in question is Murphy v. Smith, which was decided today, in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch:

As always, we start with the specific statutory language in dispute. That language (again) says “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded.” § 1997e(d)(2). And we think this much tells us a few things. First, the word “shall” usually creates a mandate, not a liberty, so the verb phrase “shall be applied” tells us that the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform….Second, immediately following the verb we find an infinitival phrase (“to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded”) that specifies the purpose or aim of the verb’s non-discretionary duty. Cf. R. Huddleston & G. Pullum, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, ch. 8, §§ 1, 12.2, pp. 669, 729–730 (2002).

Notwithstanding this citation, the book didn’t play any real role in the decision. I seriously doubt that Justice Gorsuch and his clerks felt that research was necessary before they could conclude that the function of the clause to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded was to “specify the purpose or aim” of the duty imposed by the statute. Rather, the citation is there primarily to satisfy the norm of legal analysis that important statements in opinions should be supported by citations to appropriate authority.

Nevertheless, the citation is significant because it can’t help but increase awareness of the book among lawyers (and judges, and law schools). Maybe some of them will even think about buying a copy. I can personally attest to the book’s usefulness in dealing with language-related issues that arise in legal interpretation. (I’m sure that Quirk et al. contains much of the same information, but I’m less familiar with it and it’s not what I reach for first.)

While Huddleston & Pullum isn’t cheap, by any means ($250 new on Amazon, used for about $180), it’s in the same ballpark as many practice-oriented books marketed to lawyers.

I wonder if the American Bar Association would be interested in negotiating with Cambridge University Press for a discounted bulk rate…


Leave a Reply