Resisting the urge to pack your sentences with numerous thoughts and details will make your writing easier to understand and thus, more effective.
Use of sprawling, convoluted sentences—in legal memoranda, briefs to the court, judicial opinions, statutes, and transactional documents—is a long-standing tradition in legal writing.
The desire to stave off any possible misinterpretation and be as precise as possible likely accounts for the lawyerly habit of stuffing so much information and detail into a single sentence that it bloats with multiple phrases within multiple clauses. While the result may be grammatical correct, coherence and comprehensibility are lost. Such construction forces even those with legal training to read the sentence multiple times before discerning the point. By failing to serve up our thoughts in easily digestible units, we do our readers (and ourselves) a disservice—especially in this age of increasing time pressures and diminishing attention spans. Quick conveyance of meaning should be our priority.
Top legal writing experts say we should generally limit our sentences to 20 to 25 words and aim to express just one thought in each, or, as the deceased legal scholar and trial practice expert James W. McElhaney wrote in his December 1995 column for the American Bar Association Journal, “give each sentence just one job.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at an 86-word sentence that Richard C. Wydick uses in his classic guide, Plain English for Lawyers, to illustrate the problem with convoluted sentence construction:
In a trial by jury, the court may, when the convenience of witnesses or the ends of justice would be promoted thereby, on motion of a party, after notice and hearing, make an order, no later than the close of the pretrial conference in cases in which such pretrial conference is to be held, or in other cases, no later than 10 days before the trial date, that the trial of the issue of liability shall precede the trial of any other issue in the case.
(Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed. 2005) “Use Short Sentences,” ch. 5, p. 34.)
While grammatically correct, this sentence is hard to understand. Wydick parses it for us by breaking out the five pieces of information that it contains. He lists them in this order:
- In a jury case, the liability issue may be tried before any other issue.
- The judge may order the liability issue to be tried first if that will serve the convenience of witnesses or the ends of justice.
- The judge may make the order on a party’s motion, after notice and hearing.
- In a case with a pretrial conference, the judge may make the order no later than the end of the conference.
- In a case with no pretrial conference, the judge may make the order no later than ten days before the trial date.
(Wydick, Plain English, pp. 34-35.)
The original sentence is hard to understand for two reasons, Wydick explains. First, in cramming the five thoughts into a single sentence, the writer has mangled their logical ordering. The first question readers want answered when tackling a new sentence is, “What is the main point?” In this case, the main point is the first of the numbered pieces of information above: In a jury case, the liability issue may be tried before any other issue. While the first part of that thought comes at the beginning of the sentence, its completion does not occur until the very end, in the last 20 words. To get there, readers must “climb through’’ four subsidiary ideas. A sentence that essentially makes readers run through an obstacle course to get to the main point is not a well-constructed sentence.
Second, the sentence contains so many words between the subject, the verb, and the object that it “strains [our] memories,” as Wydick puts it. As a result, most of us have to review it two or three times to fully understand it. The subject (court) shows up at word seven, but then we have to slog through 25 more words to get to the verb (make). The first part of the object (an order) immediately follows, but the rest of it does not start to appear until word 68: that. By the time we get to the critical part of the object—the words that tell us the type of order the writer is talking about (one commanding that the trial of the issue of liability shall precede the trial of any other issue in the case)—we have forgotten the subject and the verb and must search through the preceding words to find them.
Indeed, making sure that the subject, the verb, and the object of the sentence do not stray too far from each other is a good way to craft a sentence that is easy to understand. (See https://www.sfbar.org/blog/legal-writing-tip-mind-the-gaps-between-subject-verb-and-object/)
Here is Wydick’s rewrite of the convoluted sentence:
In a jury case, the court may order the liability issue to be tried before any other issue. The court may make such an order if doing so serves the convenience of witnesses or the ends of justice. The court may make the order on a party’s motion, after notice and hearing. In a case with a pretrial conference, the court may make the order no later than the end of the conference. In a case with no pretrial conference, the court may make an order no later than ten days before the trial date.
(Wydick, Plain English, pp. 35-36.)
The remedy was simple: Break the long, convoluted, single sentence containing five thoughts into five sentences—each containing one thought expressed in about 20 words and ordered in a logical sequence.
About the author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF