Weird Collections of Letters

In reading what now passes for a headnote in most of the cases reported by Carswell, I came across the phrase, “efforts and exhortions”. See Dumbrell v. Regional Group of Companies Inc. (2007), 25 B.L.R. (4th) 171. I had originally thought that I might post this neologism—if that’s what such a collection of letters can be called—and invite members of Slaw to add any others they might come across from any legal source.

On a whim, I did a search in CanLII for “exhortions” and, to my surprise, discovered that there were over 400 cases where this word appeared to have been used. When I checked a very small sample of the cases, CanLII had actually found the quite unexceptional word, “exhortation”. It seems bizarre to me that a search for a single word—whether a valid word or a random collection of letters—would lead to a list of a large number of cases where not only is the word not used but another word is. This experience makes me very nervous; what other things might screw up a search and make the result useless? Is this the only “word” or, more accurately, collection of letters, that is so treated by CanLii’s search engine?

By the way, the invitation still stands. It has a loose connection to David’s anguished cry regarding the poor standards of research and argument and might vividly illustrate the poor standards of, inter alia, judicial writing, editing and reporting. There are, for example, over 300 instances in CanLII—there are over twice as many in QL—where the phrase “contra proferentem” is misspelled as “contra proferentum”.


  1. Marc-Andre Morissette

    I have worked extensively on CanLII’s search engine and can give you a short explanation of how the engine bags these two words together.

    One of the challenges facing search engine designers is to strike a balance between two conflicting goals: to find all the documents that are relevant to the query and to minimize the number of results that are irrelevant. These goals conflict because the heuristics that are used to improve the former will often hinder the latter and vice-versa.

    An example of such a trade-off is our stemming algorithm. This algorithm allows our search engine to return documents containing the word “accredited” for queries containing the word “accreditation”. The rationale behind it is that a document that contains “accredited worker” is relevant to a query for “worker accreditation”.

    In other cases however, the same algorithm will most likely add irrelevant results. For example, a query for “interest rate” will return documents containing the words “interesting” and “rate”. Moreover, the algorithm is based on general observations about the morphology of the english and french language and sometimes gets it wrong.

    Despite these drawbacks, our analysis is that in CanLII’s case, stemming does more good than harm. Fortunately, you can disable stemming by enclosing the words you wish to remain unstemmed in EXACT() e.g. EXACT(interest) rate.

  2. An earlier comment on my original post (now lost) defended both the word “exhortion” and the spelling of “proferentum“. This comment responds to that defence. An earlier comment on this point by me has also been lost.

    The Oxford English Dictionary does not recognize “exhortion”. All versions of the word, “exhortation”, since the Middle Ages and, of course, with a variety of ways of spelling the suffix, have an “a” between the root and the suffix. In any case, the word the editor wanted to use was “exertions”.

    The Latin word “proferentem” is the accusative case, following the preposition “contra”, of the third declension noun “proferens” which word is itself the gerund formed from the present participle of the verb “proferre”. It is simply wrong to use the spelling “proferentum”. If one is going to use a Latin phrase, it should at least be syntactically correct.

    You will occasionally find judges using the word “proferens”, i.e., in the nominative case, and even the plural, “proferentes”. In most cases, when Canadian judges do so, they are quoting English reasons for judgment. The persistence of the incorrect spelling is in part due to the fact that the spell-check programme in at least several versions of WordPerfect would “correct” the correct spelling and to the widespread belief that all Latin words have to end in “um”.

    It is a hugely expensive waste of time to permit, let alone encourage, the use of misspelled words, particularly when one reflects on the gloomy fact that there are always far more ways of being wrong than of being right, just as there are far more ways of being dead than alive.