Legal Writing Tip: Strive for Clean, Uncluttered Sentences

Savannah Blackwell

legal-writing-OCTA well-structured sentence wastes no words.

Craft a tidy sentence by placing the actor first, the action second, and the object of the action third. Consider the sentence, “It is possible for the court to modify the judgment.” The actor is court, the action is modify, and the object is judgment. So, legal writing expert Richard Wydick asks in Plain English for Lawyers, “What is the purpose of the first four words?”

The answer? None. The words, “It is possible for” add no meaning. They distract the reader’s attention and obscure the point. Rewriting the sentence to focus on the actor, the action, and the object results in a stronger, shorter sentence: “The court can modify the judgment.”

Wydick tells us to watch for sentences or clauses starting with “it” or “there” followed by the “to be” form of a verb. If “it” or “there” does not refer to a specific, concrete thing, the word is probably ushering in needless verbiage and doing the prose no good.

Consider the following two sentences: “The summons arrived this morning. It is on your desk.” Even though “it” in the second sentence is followed by a “to be” verb, the construction is perfectly fine because “it” refers to “summons.”

Here’s another example from Plain English: “There were no reasons offered by the court for denying punitive damages.” This sentence starting with “it” or “there,” followed by a “to be” verb (“were”) has a problem. “There” points to nothing specific. The shorter, stronger version reads, “The court offered no reasons for denying punitive damages.”

You can also avoid the clumsy, cluttered sentence by never writing one “you couldn’t easily speak,” as Bryan Garner advises in The Winning Brief. Try reading your work out loud, explaining the point to a friend, or both.

And review these “before-and-after” examples from Garner (the “after” part of which I’ve taken the liberty of pruning further):

Before: “Johnson had the perception that there was a lack of diligence on the part of OHA in its selection of candidates.”

After: “Johnson thought OHA wasn’t diligent in selecting candidates.”

Before: “While the merits of these claims are discussed infra at Section II, it is worth noting two aspects of these causes of action that influence the procedure for bringing them in federal court.”

After: “Before addressing the claims’ merits, we must discuss the two bases for suing in federal court.”

The “before” sentences have a belabored, “herky-jerky” syntax. But the “after” sentences have a “smoother, more natural, more plain-spoken” wording that is much easier to read.

This is not to say that the phraseology of ordinary speech makes for good writing. Garner quotes Judge Jerome Frank’s timeless article, The Speech of Judges: A Dissenting Opinion, 29 Va. L. Rev. 625, 629 (1943), when he says, “Good writing is speech ‘heightened and polished.’”

About the author:

Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She became a licensed California attorney in 2010 and specializes in legal research and writing. She can be reached at savannah.blackwell@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF.