The Law of Confusion Monday, Mar 29 2010 

Oh the joys of legal writing. Reading cases in my Constitutional Law course at La Salle gives me a taste of the type of writing I will see next year in law school, as well as the type of writing I’ll potentially encounter for the rest of my professional career. To say I have sometimes have moments of true horror would be an understatement. Though I admit that legal writing is type of technical writing containing techniques all it’s own, that’s no reason to throw good sense out the window. Take for example part of the opinion written by Chief Justice Taft in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture:

“Grant the validity of this law, and all that Congress would need to do, hereafter, in seeking to take over to its control any one of the great numbers of subjects of public interest, jurisdiction of which the states have never parted with, and which are reserved to them by the Tenth Amendment, would be to enact a detailed measure of complete regulation of the subject and enforce it by a so-called tax upon departures from it.”

Ok, so technically this sentence is grammatically sound so I can’t completely blast it as completely terrible. But look at it. Really look at it. It’s one sentence! Could it be split into two or more sentences for the sake of clarity? Sure! Does Justice Taft get a prize for keeping it as one sentence? Nope! I have my work set out for me trying to clarify the gunk that is legal writing, but I do think that clarity is contagious. Next year, I’ll be completely surrounded by legal writing, most of which will make me want to scream. But if I can be one less lawyer who avoids this confusion in my writing, I’ll consider my efforts a success.

Source: Mason, Alpheus Thomas, and Donald Grier Stephenson, Jr. ed. American Constitutional Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Allegory of Grammar Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Though I can appreciate the beauty of a well crafted painting, I usually miss the deeper meaning behind most works of art.  Drifting through the galleries at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore I finally found a painting that speaks a language I can understand.

Allegory of Grammar, painted in 1650 by Laurent de La Hyre, depicts the art of grammar as a woman watering flowers that represent ideas.  The artist’s objective is to show how grammar and clear writing allow ideas to bloom and prosper.  I may be no art connoisseur but I certainly understand the merit of the artist’s work.  The most intelligent ideas are worthless without a clear, coherent organization that allows them to be understood.

This is why celebrities hire ghost writers to help write their autobiographies.  The heart of the book comes from the person who lived the anecdotes, but these anecdotes are not marketable if they are not expressed in a clear, interesting, clever way that captivates an audience.

The art of writing gives ideas their sophistication.  For example, adolescence is a memorable time in many people’s lives and while some will say there are unique qualities to being an adolescent, few can verbalize their experience in a way that others will understand, even if these feelings are universal.  In Catcher in the Rye, the late J.D. Salinger developed the characteristics of adolescence through his words, sentence structure, and organization so that the adolescent experience could be felt by his readers in a way that though many felt, few could express themselves.