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Counsel may approach

On being asked who was a gentleman who had just quitted a party, Samuel Johnson answered that, though he hesitated to speak ill of any man behind his back, he believed the gentleman was an attorney.

While I was sleeping, exchanges were multiplying on Twitter between @The_CopyEditor and others about the lawyer/attorney distinction. I can offer a simple solution: Don’t bother.

Garner’s Modern American Usage points out that though an attorney may not be a lawyer but simply someone acting on behalf of another, in practice the two terms “are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession.” Theodore Bernstein, Garner says, tried to make the distinction that a lawyer is an attorney only when working on behalf of a client — a distinction “rarely, if ever, observed in practice.”

Since Mr. Garner is also the editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of several books on law and legal language, I’m content to take his views as representing settled usage. And even the Associated Press Stylebook has twigged* to the circumstance that “[i]n common usage the words are interchangeable.”

I have known copy editors who would mark up proofs to change lawyer to attorney, and others who would mark proofs to change attorney to lawyer. There may still be places where this kind of pointless, graph-hooking** triviality may count as editing, but I hope not.

Tomorrow, if I feel strong enough, I may return to convince and persuade.


*Twig (v.) is another of those handy British usages. It means “to suddenly realize,” with the implication that one has previously been a little thick.

**In olden times, little ones, a copy editor would take his pencil and mark the beginning of each paragraph with a symbol like a capital L so that the typesetter would know to indent that line. The symbol was called a graph hook or graf hook. A copy editor who turned in a text with nothing on it but the graph hooks was called a graph hooker — that is, a lazy employee who evidenced only the appearance of editing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (10)


Twig is a Britishism? Huh. I had no idea. I use it reasonably frequently.

Re: marking grafs. 37 years ago as a rookie editor at The Wall Street Journal, I was told by a veteran, "I'm just paid to make them hooks." Never forgot it.

As a judge I have what I think is a decent (if not broadly applicable) reason for distinguishing the two words. If no one else thinks the reason is any good, at least it's a useful distinction for me.

I went to law school and became a lawyer, that is, someone schooled in the law. Tthen I passed the bar and got my license to practice as an attorney at law.

Now that I'm on the bench, I am no longer a member of the bar and do not have a license ot practice so I can't be anyone's attorney at law. But I have not stopped being a lawyer.

And if my fingers weren't so fumbly, I'd have been able to avoid posting the word "Tthen". Oh well.

When I was one of the associates (a lawyer/an attorney) at a big law firm, we used to say that a partner who made such inconsequential and baffling edits to our drafts was spending all his time changing "happy" to "glad." If I'd known "graph-hooking" in those days, I might have used it.

The old distinction survives in the phrase "power of attorney"; one holding a power of attorney need not be a lawyer.

A relative who graduated from law school and then spent 30-some years working for the Federal government without having passed the bar in any state, makes a pretty big distinction between his title as lawyer and other people's right to be called attorney. Many times, this distinction has been explained over Thanksgiving dinner, as explanation for why legal advice will not be forthcoming.

Robert Ambrogi's Law Sites linked to this post, and one of his readers posted this comment:

"And what do they call a layman who becomes an attorney through a valid power of attorney"

My response:

Tell me the last time you heard a non-lawyer in possession of a power of attorney call himself or herself an "attorney."

I've known a few graph-hookers, too (though I wasn't familiar with the term before today). They'll proofread thirty pages of text and change nothing except three or four whiches to thats per page.

You call them attorneys-in-fact, as opposed to attorneys-at-law. I called myself my wife's attorney (when she was in the hospital and I did hold that power) once, only to be crushed with "Are you a lawyer, Mr. Cowan?"

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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