ON THE PAPERS: Who Done It? Controlling Agency in Legal Writing, Part II

Vol. 39 No. 2

The author is Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke University.

In our culture, lawyers have an affinity for abstract nouns. The original fault is Aristotle’s. Before him, most people had noticed that things moved. Aristotle turned this into an abstract concept by using the Greek equivalent of the word “motion.” An idea stated as a noun tends to sound far more profound than when it is stated as a verb. We call nouns made out of verbs “nominalizations.” They successfully keep nonprofessionals at a distance from the concepts being invoked.

Legal writing is often attacked for relying too heavily on these nominalizations. But the problem here is neither their nature nor their number: It is their use at inappropriate moments. Quite simply, nominalizations are consistently treacherous when they are allowed to state what is going on. That job should be left to the verb.

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