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Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Should Lawyers Use Big Words? | And How Should Writers Use Big Words?

As an advocate for the use of clear, concise plain language by writers in every profession, including the law, I was intrigued when I saw the headline above about lawyers. It was on an article in The Jury Expert by Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University.

[Don't get sidetracked by the italicized Editor's Note at the beginning of Alter's article. Read it later.]

Alter first explains what he means by the "big words" of legal discourse, or "legalese." He writes:
People esteem lawyers for their intellects and the lawyer’s unique command of legalese and its vocabulary can perpetuate that image. But there’s no inherent reason why lawyers absolutely must use bigger words when smaller ones will do.
When I'm writing, editing, and advising people about writing, I try to follow that important plain-language guideline: Don't use bigger words when smaller ones will do. But plain language has two related, significant principles (and others) that apply here. 

First, writers must be clear about the purpose(s) of their documents--not just for writing and publishing them but also for other people to read them. And writers must be clear, in their own minds at least, about the people they want to reach and influence with their document. In other words, their documents must meet the needs of both the writer and the reader.

So: The writer must consider those purposes and needs when choosing words for a document, be they small, familiar words or big, complex words.

Referring to cited research findings that conflict with other cited research findings, Alter explains that "humans are mentally quite lazy" and don't want "to expend extra mental effort" to read something. He writes: 
If, on the other hand, the information is innately complex, that extra effort is justified[,] and oversimplification might even suggest [to the reader] that the communicator is missing some of the nuances.
Further, Alter notes research that suggests there are times when it may be appropriate "to inject artificial bursts of complexity into a statement":
Longer words slow people down and force them to think just slightly harder than they had to think beforehand. They may not enjoy the experience ... but their mental systems kick into gear, processing what comes next with a greater degree of care and effort.
Referring to complex words as cues that tell readers to pay more attention, Alter writes:
The answer to the question I posed earlier is that you should use long words when they're appropriate. Don't avoid them altogether just because they'll make you look stodgy—but never use a long word when a shorter word will do (this is the same advice that grammarians have been giving for years).
As I interpret Alter's advice using plain-language principles, it's OK for an attorney or other writer to choose some big or precise words if there's a clear purpose in using them that benefits both the writer and the reader. Alter concludes:
More surprising, perhaps, is the importance of peppering simpler words with complex words at critical junctures: before a key argument, or before a message that you want the jury (or other listeners) to process more carefully. In that case, the benefit of encouraging people to pay closer attention outweighs the cost of forcing them to think harder in the first place.
I'll conclude by stressing it's the responsibility of the writer, speaker or editor to help the reader or listener through that thinking process. That's possible by providing a clarifying context when using complex words (through anecdotes and metaphors, for example), by including nearby definitions of the complex words, or by enabling easy reader access to a glossary or linked reference with an explanation. 

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Here are a couple of my resources on this topic:


Alter's column is featured today, April 28, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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