February 12, 2010
Cease, Desist and Cut That Out

People are always talking about cease and desist letters, but why do these things go to all the trouble to demand that you cease AND desist? What if you cease, but decline to desist? Could you get in trouble if you desist, but pass up on the ceasing?

By way of contrast, it makes perfect sense to tell someone not to "fold, spindle or mutilate" something. Folding is not the same as spindling, nor is it the same as mutilating; and you can spindle a thing without mutilating it, just as you could mutilate it without spindling it. Folding, spindling and mutilating are three different things, so if you don't want someone to do any of them, you have to tell them not to do all three.

A demand to both cease and desist implies that they're two different things, and you're demanding them not to do either one (ask your friendly neighborhood linguist about the Gricean maxim of quantity). Otherwise it's just a waste of words. To be sure, it only takes a second to say "cease and desist", but think of all the accumulated loss of productivity in all of the lawyer's offices all over the world, dictating and typing more than is necessary. Think of all the printer toner wasted printing out three words, when one would have been enough. In these difficult economic times, every little bit of extra efficiency makes a difference.

I'm troubled by the thought that I could get one of these things, and sincerely attempt to comply, but unwittingly fail because of some unfathomably subtle legal distinction between ceasing and desisting. A Kafkaesque nightmare scenario comes to mind -- cops and lawyers hammering on the door, the cops slapping on the cuffs while the lawyer cackles, "You CEASED but you didn't DESIST, SUCKAH!"

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