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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Lawyer Reads an Ad ... Or Are Parsers People?


IMG_1061Coming into school on the T this morning, I saw a Jet Blue ad that, at first, stoked one of my long-running pet peeves.  

You see this all the time, and it's usually less nuanced than this (there's been an example on a billboard you see from the eastbound Mass Pike near Fenway Park): an airline claims it has the "most non-stops" out of a particular city.

What bugs me is that EVERY flight is a non-stop, so it's a stupid claim when phrased that way.  All they are saying is that they have the most flights.

This one is a little more nuanced because it has invoked layovers.  That makes more sense, but what Jet Blue has to be saying is not that it has the most non-stops, because they are all non-stops; rather, of all the airlines flying out of Boston, Jet Blue's travelers have the highest percentage of reaching their final destination without a layover.  But that still doesn't really mean the most non-stops out of Boston.

I posit this entire thought process as an example of the lawyerly mind gone berserk. Normal human beings don't do this.

Normal human beings only care about whether the words convey the gist of the meaning. My wife is a volunteer in a community organization.  It has a contract to use certain facilities seasonally - i.e. over the summer.  The contract has historically has been renegotiated every year, but last year they agreed to terms for two years. Somebody in the organization said something to the effect that it  was a change because the organization had always had a "tenancy at will."  When my wife first implied that a LAWYER had said that, I had a mild conniption.  When I understood it was a non-lawyer who said it, I could see how somebody could be expressing that there was an at-will aspect to the relationship - just that it kicked in once a year.  I'd call it a "year to year" contract, but the "at will" meaning isn't that far off in context.

Years ago, when I was a young associate, another lawyer in the firm told me about a client who said he had purchased a boat on "land contract."  Of course that's not possible, but normal human beings would understand that he bought a boat on an installment plan, and didn't get title until he paid it off.

I can't recall whether I had this sickness before I went to law school or that I went to law school because I had this sickness.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on September 21, 2016 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

Comments

This is exactly why law professors should have been more critical of their own schools' puffery to incoming students. We parse the language of other advertisers with great glee; why didn't we parse our own schools' claims of "95% employed!" with the same critical eye?

Posted by: Deborah Merritt | Sep 22, 2016 1:18:37 PM

I agree with Howard Wasserman and George Carlin. Every flight stops at some point. There is no such thing as a non-stop flight. Mr. Carlin expressed a preference, which I share, that his flights stop at an airport.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Sep 21, 2016 6:02:15 PM

George Carlin long ago did a riff about the ridiculous language used at airports and in the airline industry. W/R/T "something called a non-stop flight," Carlin said, "I want my flight to stop. Preferably at the end."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 21, 2016 5:55:59 PM

Try Silver Airlines. There's such a thing as a nonstop flight

Posted by: Reallawyer | Sep 21, 2016 1:45:37 PM

My guess is that "non-stops" is shorthand for "non-stop destinations," rather than "non-stop flights," which makes the claim completely reasonable.

But I also question your statement that "all flights are non-stops," which depends on the definition of "flight." You seem to think it means the trip between a takeoff and the following landing, but airlines often assign a "flight number" to a trip with multiple destinations. Using that definition, there are definitely flights that are not non-stops.

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Sep 21, 2016 1:30:04 PM

"[O]f all the airlines flying out of Boston, Jet Blue's travelers have the highest percentage of reaching their final destination without a layover. But that still doesn't really mean the most non-stops out of Boston."

Why not?

If your objection is that a "non-stop flight" is a misnomer because a "flight" refers only to a single leg, there are two easy responses to that. First, your definition of "flight" is idiosyncratic and not the normal definition as used in the industry and understood by consumers. Even if a single leg can also be called a flight---for example, by a customer flying only that leg---consumers use "flight" to refer to all of the air travel between themselves and their destination on a given trip. If you tell somebody to book a flight from one city to another, a reasonable consumer would understand that to include the possibility of a layover or even an airplane change. That's why we use the phrase "direct flight" or "non-stop flight"; under your definition, a person would assume that an instruction to book a flight is an instruction to book only a nonstop flight.

Second, the ad doesn't even say "non-stop flight." It just says "the most non-stops." If your idiosyncratic definition of "flight" doesn't permit you to give that phrase meaning if it means "non-stop flights," just substitute in a word that will allow you to get at the same definition others already understand. For example, it could be "most non-stop trips" or "most non-stop bookings" or "most non-stop passengers."

Posted by: Jordan | Sep 21, 2016 1:27:18 PM

If we're going to be lawyerly about this, it just says "most non-stops," not "most non-stop flights." The implied object of "most non-stops" could instead be something like "options" or "trips."

Posted by: Hash | Sep 21, 2016 11:35:51 AM

(chuckles in recognition)

Posted by: BDG | Sep 21, 2016 10:58:33 AM

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