"It crosses the i's and dots the t's"

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In a YouTube video yesterday, Michael Popok explained the differences (in New York State law) among a "verdict", a "decision and order", and a "judgment", in the context of the latest stage of Donald Trump's civil fraud case. Those intricacies are an interesting aspect of the sociolinguistics of the law, but the topic of this post is Popok's word-exchange speech error at about 4:45:

uh it crosses the i's and dots the t's

dots the i's and crosses the t's

Some of the context:

The OED's entry for the phrase provides the gloss "to dot the i's (and cross the t's) and variants: to pay attention to every detail, esp. when finishing off a task or undertaking; to be accurate and precise." The earliest citation given is from 1820, though the casual use suggests that it was already a cliché at that time:

1820 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington) Pray, sir, what is the object of referring a bill to a committee—merely to dot the i's and cross the t's?

The everyday resonance of the metaphor in question is fading with the decline of handwriting — it's not quite at the stage of "free rein", but it's getting there.

YouTube's speech-to-text language model has apparently already lost the idea, since it render the phrase as "crosses the eyes":

Finally, Popok's self-correction has a clear undertone of laughter, which current speech-analysis technology is not yet (as far as I know) able to detect:


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 8:29 am

    Unrelated to Donald Trump's civil fraud case, I recently came across a wonderfully literal example of the importance of crossing t's.

    A relative who studies our family history noted that one of our ancestors in 1788 was listed in a 19th century record as a "slave trader". This seemed unlikely, since slavery was illegal as of 1780 in Pennsylvania and the guy was a Quaker.

    After going back to look at the primary source, my relative found that our ancestor was a "stave trader" – as in barrel staves.

    Cross your t's, indeed!

  2. Ralph J Hickok said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 9:46 am

    Every jot and tittle in the KJV

  3. Robert Coren said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 10:07 am

    I know that I have occasionally heard, and probably used myself, "dot the t's and cross the i's" (and/or the other way around) as a facetious reference to the conventional idiom; I wonder if a similar experience affected Popok's usage.

  4. Cervantes said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 10:28 am

    It is of course physically possible to dot the tees and cross the eyes.

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 10:49 am

    Crossing the eyes and dotting the tees might actually improve my golf game.

  6. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 12:08 pm

    When I received the notice of this post in my email, I thought the subject was referencing "The Silence of the Lambs"!

  7. Roscoe said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 3:31 pm

    And poor Mr. Potter,
    T crosser,
    I dotter.
    He has to cross T’s
    and he has to dot I’s
    in an I-and-T factory
    out in Van Nuys!

    – Dr. Seuss

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 3:42 pm

    I'm not sure that sociolinguistics has much insight to offer into the details of state-specific lawyer jargon (and I am reasonably fluent in the specific N.Y. jargon-dialect referenced). It can offer high-level insights into why professional jargon exists and may even be beneficial as a general matter (e.g. by drawing clearer distinctions between closely-related technical things that insiders need to be able to distinguish between even if outsiders usually don't). But as to why the details are the way that they are rather than some other way they might have been, if there's any insight to be offered at all from linguistics scholarship it's unlikely to be from a toolkit specific to sociolinguistics.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 4:12 pm

    "crossing the t's and dotting the i's" certainly reminds one of "every jot and tittle", and their implications are pretty much the same, but the derivation and actualization are different.


    A reference to Matthew 5:18 in the Bible (King James Version; spelling modernized): “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle, shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”[1] The Koine Greek phrase is ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία (iôta hèn ḕ mía keraía). [VHM: compare what J.W. Brewer just said about the law.]

    Jot (“the smallest letter or stroke of any writing, iota”) is derived from Middle English jote (“jot, tittle, whit”),[2] from Latin iōta (“the Greek letter iota (Ι, ι)”), from Ancient Greek ἰῶτα (iôta, “the letter Ι, ι, the smallest in the alphabet; (figurative) a very small part of writing, jot”),[3] from Phoenician ⁧⁩ (y /⁠yōd⁠/).

    Tittle (“small dot, stroke, or diacritical mark; (figurative) small, insignificant amount, modicum, speck”) is derived from Middle English title (“small written mark or stroke; smallest part”) [and other forms],[4][5] from Anglo-Norman title, tittle [and other forms], and Middle French titele, title (“inscription”) (modern French titre), and from their etymon Latin titulus (“epitaph, inscription”); further etymology uncertain,[6] but thought to be of Etruscan origin.



  10. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 4:53 pm

    I have seen Caucasianist transcriptions of languages of Dagestan use both ɨ and … their Cyrillic orthographies use ы and тӀ instead, though.

  11. JPL said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 5:50 pm

    WRT the OED "gloss" "to be accurate and precise" for the phrase in question, I would rather suggest instead "complete" and "thorough" as more accurate descriptions of the intended aims of actions described figuratively as "dotting i's and crossing t's". It would also be more in harmony with the preceding "to" clause, which gives a pretty good account.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 8:37 pm

    @David Marjanović:

    "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules", 9/27/2004
    "Birlashdirilmish yangi Turk alifbesi", 9/27/2004
    "Vaslav Tchitcherine, call your office", 10/19/2006
    "Battle of the alphabets in Central Asia", 11/19/2010

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 4:31 am

    The dot seems to have been added to lower-case ‘i’ in the Middle Ages (the Greek iota doesn’t have it).
    Turkish, amongst other languages, distinguishes between ‘I ’ and ‘ı’, so dotting the (correct) i’s there is even more important. Given its vowel harmony, I don’t know if there could be any words distinguished solely by such a dot?
    Slave/stave made me laugh – how many modern-day Confederate sympathisers are now going to claim their ancestors really only owned staves?

  14. Marc said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 10:37 pm

    Dot your j’s and cross your x’s?

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