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CLOSING THE GENERATION GAP

Say so long to your comfort zone.
What you need to know
about managing the multigenerational law firm.

June 2006 Issue | Volume 32 Number 4 | Page 50
Business

Writing Clear and Effective Legal Prose

By George D. Gopen

The first article in this series (in the April/May issue) argued that readers of English understand how to make use of information in a sentence based primarily on where that information appears. It demonstrated how we look to the verb of a sentence to determine what action is taking place. This installment demonstrates how we know what information in a sentence is to be considered the most important.

PEOPLE LEARNING HOW TO TYPE have traditionally practiced producing the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" because it contains all 26 letters of the alphabet. If I told you there was one particular word in that sentence uppermost in my mind at the moment, what would be your chances of guessing it correctly? Given that there are seven important-looking words, your chances would be close to one out of seven, or 15 percent.

How would your chances improve if I were to print that word in red?

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

You could hardly mistake my sense of emphasis—my sense of what to me here is most important. If I were to speak the sentence to you, I could emphasize "lazy" with my voice; on the page that emphasis cannot be "heard." It must somehow be suggested to the eye.

It would be lovely if we could indicate emphasis to our readers by printing all the most important words in red. Unfortunately, even in this advanced age of print technology, that proves impractical and uneconomical. Yet for centuries, we readers have known where in a sentence to look for the information most worthy of stress. We do it by location. So what if I were to rewrite the sentence like this?

The quick brown fox can jump over the dog because the dog is lazy.

Now more than 90 percent of readers might well guess that "laziness" is foremost in my mind. Here then is an oversimplified version of the next in our series of reader expectations:

Readers of English expect that the most important information in a sentence will appear at its end.

This location can be called "the Stress position." The above definition is "oversimplified" because it does not tell the whole story. For that, we have to understand why the Stress position is the Stress position.

 

A National Compulsion: The Need for Closure

The logic of the Stress position rests, in part, on the fact that we like to save the best for last. We like to reward ourselves at the end of tasks. Which of us begins a meal with the strawberry shortcake and works our way up to the broccoli?

But, you might argue, do we not also believe in the adage "first things first"? Journalists are taught that you write newspaper articles by putting the most important thing first, the second most important thing second, and so forth, until all the important things have been said, after which you write two more paragraphs and then stop. Newspaper articles, I would respond, are different from sentences. Which of us routinely gets to the end of every article we start? We run out of time. We lose interest. We don't have page 17. In contrast, we almost always finish reading any sentence we begin. Since we will be present at the end of that race, we usually find the winner at the finish line.

What is most at work here is our national obsession for and compulsion with the act of closure. Once we have a clue of where the end will be, we tend to lean forward to it, in avid expectancy. Although you may have never noticed this compulsion, either in yourself or others, it exists—many, many times each day, for most of us. I have space here for only one example from daily life.

You are a basketball fan, attending a game. With 37 seconds left, your team is ahead 102 to 47. Perhaps a third of the fans have already left; but you are one of the faithful who remain glued to the seat. The outcome is not in question. The magic "100" number has already been reached. Most of the star players are already on the bench. You know that your team's coach has told the players on the floor not to "run up the score" by taking a shot in the last few seconds. And yet you remain. Ten seconds left. Four seconds. Not until the clock reads 0:00 and, most importantly, that jarring buzzer has sounded, are you "free" to leave. Why? Because for you, the experience of the basketball game begins with the opening tip-off and ends only when that cacophonous buzzer sounds. If you leave before then, you will lack closure—for which you have been waiting more than two hours.

But what, you may ask, about the one-third of the fans that have already left? Have they no need for closure? Of course they do; but for them, the evening begins with parking the car and ends with the freedom of accelerating onto the highway toward home. They are more than willing to sacrifice a minute or two of a lame game to avoid the 25-minute traffic jam in the parking lot.

 

The Principle of Syntactic Closure

In the reading experience, again, most of us tend to lean forward to the end of the sentence. When we arrive there, we arrive with a sense of emphasis. But in English, this can be caused not only by a period but also by a colon or semicolon. Grammatical rules require that what comes before a colon or semicolon ought to be able to stand by itself as a full sentence. We value the moment when any grammatical structure comes to a full halt. This is called by linguists a moment of full syntactic closure.

We therefore have to unsimplify our earlier definition of the Stress position as follows:

In English, a Stress position is any moment of full syntactic closure.

Full syntactic closure can never be accomplished by a comma. The comma is the only mark of punctuation in English that does not fully announce its function upon its arrival —because there are too many various functions a comma can fulfill. To find out what kind of a comma it is, we always have to read beyond it.

 

  • The plaintiff telephoned the defendant, who then …
  • The plaintiff telephoned the defendant, and immediately thereafter …
  • The plaintiff telephoned the defendant, his brother-in-law, and the local police …

Thus, a Stress position is created only by the correct use of a period, colon or semicolon.

Here is an example I have used with thousands of students and clients to teach the efficacy of the Stress position:

As used in the foundry industry, "turnkey" means responsibility for the satisfactory performance of a piece of equipment in addition to the design, manufacture, and installation of that equipment. P et al agree that this definition of turnkey is commonly understood in the foundry industry.

Take a moment to underline any words in these two sentences that you think the writer might be wanting you to stress. When I ask as few as a dozen students or clients to do this, all of the following terms get underlined:

 

  • foundry industry
  • turnkey
  • responsibility
  • satisfactory performance
  • design, manufacture, and installation
  • P et al

Note that "a piece of equipment" fails to make the list; and yet that is the term that occupies the first sentence's sole Stress position. Everyone is merely guessing because the writer failed to inform us of his intentions. Now here is the example again, with the writer's choice in red:

As used in the foundry industry, "turnkey" means responsibility for the satisfactory performance of a piece of equipment in addition to the design, manufacture, and installation of that equipment. P et al agree that this definition of turnkey is commonly understood in the foundry industry.

For a reader to underline "satisfactory performance" and only "satisfactory performance" is rare—and remarkably lucky.

In the preceding example, note that no term in the second sentence is in red. Any red-less sentence should not be a sentence. Its information should be tucked into some other sentence—and not in a Stress position.

 

Damage-Repair Tactics

Am I suggesting that if the writer had only transported "satisfactory performance" to the end of a single sentence, most readers would have understood his intentions? Yes.

Here is one possibility:

As P et al agree, the foundry industry uses the term "turnkey" to signify responsibility not only for the design, manufacture, and installation of a piece of equipment but also for its satisfactory performance.

Now more than 90 percent of readers will get the message.

What if P et al's agreement had also been something worthy of stress? Then we should create a second Stress position, just for that:

P et al agree: The foundry industry uses the term "turnkey" to signify responsibility not only for the design, manufacture, and installation of a piece of equipment but also for its satisfactory performance.

What if the other three functions ("design, manufacture, and installation") were also worthy of stress? Then we must create yet an additional Stress position for them:

P et al agree: The foundry industry uses the term "turnkey" to signify responsibility for a piece of equipment's design, manufacture, and installation; but the industry also uses the term to indicate responsibility for its satisfactory performance.

Locating the stress-worthy information in the sentence other than in a Stress position is the single most widespread and crippling problem in professional English writing today.

Example: Of the 185 M.D.s and Ph.D.s I have worked with at a prominent federal agency, only one did not suffer from this epidemic problem.

This is neither a mechanical nor a cosmetic concern. Since it goes to the core of your thinking in any sentence, you can "repair the damage" only by re-entering that thinking process and inquiring, "What is the most important thing I want to say here?"

It is not an easy fix. If you habitually put the important thing some place other than the Stress position, your habit will persist unless you fight against it, consciously and with great mental energy. Begin by using it as a revision tactic. Write your sentence as you normally would. Then go back and ask yourself which word or words you would print in red. Get those words next to a period, colon or semicolon. Try it. You'll like it.

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