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Legal Jargon: 5 tips to keep your writing tight

Monday, February 25, 2019   (0 Comments)
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By Abbie Nordhagen Cziok

Don't you hate it when you read someone else's work, and it goes on and on, and you start to suspect that the author of the work is using commas as conjunctions rather than actual conjunctions, and then you start to wonder about what you are going to eat for dinner and now you've completely lost your place in a sentence? Me too. So let's talk about concision. Today's lesson is brought to you by Joseph M. Williams’s book "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace." 

Williams has five rules for diagnosing and revising a wordy sentence. I won't fully discuss each in depth because five points is too many for a concise, 500-word article, but I will address each. First delete meaningless, throat-clearing terms: actually, really, kind of, virtually, clearly. The word “certain” has become such a term for me: “There are certain words I should cut from my vocabulary.” The only thing I am truly certain of is that word is unnecessary.

Second, delete doubled words. Williams gives background on this one. Early in the history of English, writers got into the habit of pairing an English word with a French or Latin one to sound more learned. This unfortunate habit stuck. Some of these are more obvious, like "full and complete," "each and every," and “first and foremost.” Others are more deeply ingrained. The "or not" in "whether or not" is redundant, as is the term "contrast" in "compare and contrast." 

Third, remove what readers can infer. One such category is redundant modifiers. As Williams points out, a writer does not need to add the detail that a meteorologist will predict “future” weather; the word “future” can be inferred by the context. In addition, why would someone would need to clarify that a gift is a "free gift" unless she is working at a Clinique counter (where we know no gifts are truly free)? Another category of words that can be inferred are redundant categories. These are sometimes obvious because of an attached preposition: period of time, red in color, tall in appearance. The initial adjective was explanatory without the need for another categorical word.

Fourth, replace phrases with words. This tip involves a bit more creativity, time, and wit. "For the reason that" becomes, "because." "I am in a position to" becomes, "I can." "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" becomes, "Liar." (I’m not trying to indicate that Shakespeare’s language can be improved. He’s just not around to object to my jokes).

Last, change negatives to affirmatives. Many verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions are inherently negative like “preclude,” “against,” and “unless.” As Williams explains, when these are combined with “not,” sentences become unreadable. This is when the "antonym" feature on the Merriam Webster website is handy. With this rule, "not allow" becomes "prevent," "not often" becomes "rarely."

So if you are past that pesky word limit on a filing, go through these five steps to tighten the language. I'm sure the Court will also appreciate your efforts. 

Abbie Nordhagen Cziok is an associate with Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven in the Helena office. She likes rock climbing, skiing, and one space after a period.