Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

The California Legislature: "May" versus "Shall"...

06/19/2013 5:51 PM

06/19/2013 7:38 PM

May I extend my remarks on trailer bills and language?

I shall.

As my editor noted in an editorial about Assembly Bill 76, which apparently is a bill that would permit local governments to kind of ignore open records requests as well as reverse laws of molecular motion, rename California after Willie Brown, and provide $35,250,000 for "cool state cars for incumbent Democratic legislators sole use," there is a critical distinction between the words "may" and "shall," legislatively.

"May" means state government is not going to do something, and "shall" means the state government has to do something.

In recalling my late father, which I have been doing a lot of recently, he was a "shall" kind of guy. "Shall" was often interchangeable with "will," followed by "you little &@#$%," which is not known legislative language, shall we say. Of course, my father worked for the federal government, where there was a lot of shalling going on, particularly in the U.S. Army, where he also had extensive experience.

"Sir, I may run towards that machine gun nest."

"No, Private, you shall."

My father was also very persuasive in his use of "shall" with regard to cleaning my room, which I saw as a major "may." 

"May" and "shall" are lawyer words, which are harmless words in a prima facie (lawyer words meaning "obviously, you idiot") non-lawyer context, but in the hands of a lawyer become sharp objects. When I was married, there wasn't any shilly-shallying about shall. You can't spell "marry" without "may," I always used to say.

For example, let's say you (me) wanted something from your (my) spouse, and you (I) said, "Honey, I may take out the garbage after I shall drink nine beers while watching Game Six."

"Darling, I may call my divorce lawyer and you shall pay me $2,500 per month in perpetuity (lawyer words meaning "until you die in poverty by yourself")."

See? Lawyers again. 

We may never be rid of their linguistic influence, but we shall try.

As for me, I may write about this again tomorrow.

My editor just told me I shall not.

About This Blog

Jack Ohman joined The Sacramento Bee in 2013. He previously worked at the Oregonian, the Detroit Free Press and the Columbus Dispatch. His work is syndicated to more than 200 newspapers by Tribune Media Services. Jack has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Scripps Foundation Award and the national SPJ Award, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and the Herblock Prize in 2013. Contact Jack at johman@sacbee.com. Twitter: @JACKOHMAN.


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