Lawyers Journal

Book review: Legal writing guides say it with style

"The Elements of Legal Style" by Bryan A. Garner
Published by Oxford University Press, New York (2002)
Price: $30
"Kissing Legalese Goodbye"
by Ken Bresler Published by Fred B. Rothman Publications, Littleton, CO (2001) The American Heritage Dictionary defines "rhetoric" as "the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively." Despite this indifferent definition, rhetoric has taken on a pejorative meaning. If you're full of rhetoric, you "dialogue about possible eventualities" rather than talk about what could happen.
But rhetoric provides nothing more than an approach to style. And it is this approach that is the subject of two new books.
Bryan Garner's The Elements of Legal Style serves as either lunchtime cafeteria or four-star restaurant, take your pick. There's something here for everyone. If all you need is the correct way to address a judge in writing, you'll find it. Only have time for a refresher course in semicolons? Turn to page 21; there it is. But if you're in the mood to savor more exotic and satisfying fare, Garner serves it with grace. Feel free to sample some asyndeton. You'll learn how this rhetorical device can help give your writing life, even style.
So, what is this thing called style? Garner claims an inability to improve upon Jonathan Swift's definition: proper words in proper places - a pithy dictate that provides little help. That's where Garner comes in.
Because he serves as the editor in chief of Black's Law Dictionary, we expect Garner to be erudite. Experience, however, teaches us that just one baby step separates the erudite from the dogmatic, the dogmatic from the dictatorial. When, we fear, will the teacher begin to yell?
Fear not. Garner is always courteous, a trait he says that "requires that you show your readers some grace and consideration." To that end, he claims that The Elements of Legal Style serves merely as a "handbook about how not to bore your readers."
Boring it is not. Boring it is not? That sentence, Garner tells us, is an example of anastrophe, the inversion of customary word order, especially for the sake of emphasis. But don't get the idea that this book would appeal only to the language geeks among us. Never pedagogical, always entertaining, sometimes downright funny, Garner writes with a gently prescriptive tone on everything from word choice to grammar to linguistic sexism.
On word choice, for example, Garner gives us telling, succinct subchapter titles: strike out and replace fancy words; challenge vague words; and shun vogue words, including eventuate, proactive, and vogue words defined as "any other word or phrase that is on the tip of everyone's tongue…."
On sexism, Garner agrees with the judge who wrote, "…gendered writing…will one day be immediately recognized as archaic and ludicrous…." Garner devotes six pages of his "handbook" to the pitfalls of sexism, however unintentional, and offers various ways to meet the continual challenge to avoid it.
As valuable as these specific suggestions are, it is in Garner's broader words of advice that he excels. In particular, his chapter on the fundamental principles of legal writing, with guidance on constructing paragraphs and organizing arguments, provides a valuable framework to help achieve that elusive goal, "simplicity of character."
The Elements of Legal Style makes proud its ancestor, The Elements of Style. Patterned after the familiar usage guide, Garner's book echoes Strunk and White's plea to keep writing simple and honest. With its detailed index, earthy advice and caring tone, Garner's book offers more than guidance on usage. It offers us an approach to style.
Kissing Legalese Goodbye, alternatively titled Legal Practitioner's Abecedarian Manual ("abecedarian": arranged alphabetically; elementary) by Kenneth Bresler, serves as an amusing complement to The Elements of Legal Style. It is a brief compendium of all the "legalese, jargon, and multi-syllabic words to make aforesaid lawyers, attorneys and counselors-at-law feel and sound like same." As the manual, it acts as a reverse dictionary. For example, you fear your sentence "I need to show him the money" carries insufficient heft. You refer to the book for help. In no time you're writing, "I have need of evincing him the financial wherewithal."
Both books urge the legal writer to adopt the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. Both writers know that writing simple language with force and clarity requires work. These books provide an entertaining guide to good writing-and they both do it with style.<

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