A Lawyer Makes an Airtight Case for Plain Writing
The following excerpt from the article, “Answering the Critics of Plain Language,” by Joseph Kimble, was published in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, Vol. 5, 1994-1995. It addresses the criticism of plain writing by some in the legal community. This same criticism is sometimes heard even today in other disciplines as well, hence the relevance of Kimble’s article.
“The old criticism of plain language has come mainly from within the legal profession. Again, these critics say that plain-language advocates want baby talk or a drab, simplified version of English. (I hear it from some of my own colleagues.) Either that, or the critics argue that the need to express complex ideas precisely makes plain language impossible. One last stab at the old criticism:
- Plain language is not anti-literary, anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, drab, ugly, babyish, or base.
Plain language has to do with clear and effective communication—nothing more or less. It does, though, signify a new attitude and a fundamental change from past practices. If anything is anti-literary, drab, and ugly, it is traditional legal writing—four centuries of inflation and obscurity. In his ground-breaking book, David Melinkoff describes it as wordy, unclear, pompous, and dull. Lawrence Friedman agrees: ‘The fact is that legal writing, as it pours out of thousands of word processors, is overblown yet timid, homogeneous, and swaddled in obscurity. The legal academy is positively inimical to spare, decent writing.’ John Lindsey adds that law books are ‘the largest body of poorly written literature ever created by the human race.’ Of course, the law has had its share of fine stylists; but it has been overwhelmed by legalese. And the costs must be enormous.
The heritage of plain English is just the opposite, as Bryan Garner explains: ‘It is the language of the King James Version of the Bible, and it has a long literary tradition in the so-called Attic style of writing.’ Plain English is the style of Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain, and Justice Holmes, and George Orwell, and Winston Churchill, and E.B. White. Plain words are eternally fresh and fit. More than that, they are capable of great power and dignity: ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.’
As for the notion that plain language is unsophisticated, once again just the reverse is true. It is much harder to simplify than to complicate. Anybody can take the sludge from formbooks, thicken it with a few more provisions, and leave it at that. Only the best minds and best writers can cut through. In short, writing simply and directly only looks easy. It takes skill and work and fair time to compose- all part of the lawyer’s craft.
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Word of the Month
unctuous • \UNK-chuh-wus\ • adjective
1: fatty, oily, smooth and greasy in texture; 2: insincerely smooth in speech and manner
“Keith was disheartened by the unctuous nature of the person running for president of the chamber of commerce.”
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The bikini swimsuit is named for a nuclear weapons test. On July 1, 1946, the U.S. conducted the first post-war test of an atomic weapon at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Four days later, fashion designer Jacques Heim exhibited a two-piece swimsuit, which he dubbed the bikini in order to ride the publicity created by the detonation. Months before, Heim marketed a two-piece swimsuit he named the Atome, because it was so small. However, Heim did not invent the two-piece suit; it had been in existence since at least the 1930s.
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