ON THE PAPERS: How to Overburden Your Reader: Separate Your Subject from Your Verb

Vol. 39 No. 3

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

We should stop evaluating the readability of our sentences by looking at the combination of the meanings of words and look instead at the structure in which the words are assembled. Take this sentence, for example:

1a. The trial court’s conclusion that the defendants made full disclosure of all relevant information bearing on the value of Knaebel’s stock is clearly erroneous.

The sentence is hard to read. Why? It feels long, but not because it contains 24 words. Nor are any of its words unfamiliar. It is hard to read because of its structure. Its verb (“is”) is separated from its subject (“conclusion”) by 17 words—71 percent of the sentence. This is a burdensome wait because of the reader’s expectation that every grammatical subject will be followed almost immediately by its verb. 

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