April 01, 2014

On The Papers: Controlling Crowded Sentences

Here are some methods to help readers correctly understand information-packed sentences.

George D. Gopen

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High school students can continually get all As on essays if they construct one-clause sentences and put them in an order so that teachers will be able to infer the logical connections that assumably connect them. This works well because teachers almost always know more than the students about the topic at hand. But professionals, especially lawyers, are usually writing for audiences that do not yet know all the writer has to say. Professionals are people paid to articulate the necessary connections.

Lawyers cannot tell judges, “Here are the facts; here are some precedents; we win.” The other side might well be able to turn in the identical brief, leaving the judge to figure it all out for herself. My favorite appellate judge claimed that about 95 percent of the briefs submitted were of almost no help to her in the decision-making process.

Having gotten all the right components into a single sentence, lawyers believe that all that material will be reassembled in the reader’s mind just the way the author intended. The opposing lawyer, however, might well be able to demonstrate how the same sentence fits his case perfectly. The question then becomes this: How can a writer control the use to which the reader will put all the semantic material assembled into a long, information-packed sentence? There are answers to this question, some of which we deal with here.


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