Saturday, March 28, 2009

Shortened Paragraphs: Undaunting but Confusing

Plain-writing advocates commonly recommend short paragraphs. Very short paragraphs provide a false sense of Concision, actually compromised by forced redundancy. Short paragraphs also invite ending a paragraph with the following paragraph's topic sentence, a practice inimical to Clarity. Some short paragraphs written by an authoritative plain-language advocate, who practices what he preaches, show how short paragraphs make writing verbose, even as it appears spare. (Examples are from Schiess, What Plain English Really Is (2009) Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, Vol. 9, p. 43, which you can download free from the link.) Wayne writes at page 46:
Professor Crump is right that lawyers must use forms. Lawyers must take advantage of the experience embodied in forms because, as David Mellinkoff puts it, "No one who makes frequent use of the law will ever live long enough to live without forms."
What's the distinction between lawyers' "using forms" and lawyers' "taking advantage of the experience embodied in forms"? These expressions are no less redundant than legalese's dreaded doublets ("true and correct") and triplets ("rest, residue, and remainder"); redundancy in successive sentences, rather than words, is redundancy no less. Wayne could have written "Professor Crump is right that lawyers must take advantage...," but doctrinal preference for short paragraphs necessitates redundancy to get two sentences for the first paragraph: redundancy inspired by author's realization that, even if paragraphs should be short, numerous single-sentence paragraphs reduce the guideline to the absurd.

Under the heading "The suggestion to create a separate document that explains the legal terms in plain English," Wayne writes at page 45:
Though this idea is not Professor Crump's and he does credit it to someone else, it's excellent. Plain-English advocates have already implemented it.

In her book, Plain Language for Lawyers, Michele Asprey reports that in Australia, the Corporations law Simplification Task Force created a Separate "Small Business Guide" within the Australian Corporations Law. The Guide, produced in 1995, is a plain-English version of the official law and has been well received by nonlawyers: "Small business people have told the Taskforce that reading the Guide has been the first time they have understood their obligations."
Short paragraphs damage the logic of these sentences by separating the real paragraph's topic sentence—second sentence of Wayne's first paragraph—from the supporting sentences in Wayne's second paragraph. As the paragraphs stand, the first contains two unconnected ideas and the second misdirects readers' attention from promulgating the plain-English version of law to a book reporting on it.

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