Monday, May 3, 2010

Actual Pomposity

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Since legalese helps lawyers avoid pompous eruptions, many lawyers will part with legalese, if ever, only if they first overcome their actual pomposity. Recognizing actual pomposity is the first step. Lawyers express actual pomposity—real self-important conceit, distinguished from its legalese camouflage—by style, content, and the interaction of style and content.

Style expresses pomposity when it inflates the tone to signal that the author thinks himself worthy of equally inflated public regard or when it expands the space that signals of high self-regard occupy. The most subtle stylistic type of pomposity is affectation, which offhandedly devotes unnecessary space to the writer, as when, instead of just stating his position directly, the writer dwells on himself by writing, "I am inclined to believe…" Stylistic pomposity is sometimes confused with superficially similar writing defects that aren't self-aggrandizing, such as turgidity and pedantry.

Content can also express pomposity, but in legal writing, the content is usually self-aggrandizing by implication. Intrusion of the lawyer's unsupported opinions and irrelevant sentiments suggest he is an important person, whose prejudices the court should notice. Often sentimental eruptions are mild and momentary, as when the lawyer describes an adverse occurrence as "unfortunate."

The most powerful, glaring, and easily recognized expressions of pomposity involve interactions between style and content. By this, I mean more than style selectively applied to particular content, such as verbose self-description. The imperious lawyer, for example, not only tells the court what it must do but tells in a manner conveying compulsion; directing emotional appeals to a judge is pompous. The interaction of style and content communicates an attitude more strongly than style or content alone.

The following paragraph contains not only abundant legalese but also three pompous expressions combining style and content. Try finding the three.

Needless to say, we disagree with much that is set forth in the Court of Appeal's Opinion herein. Nevertheless, this Petition for Rehearing is restricted to but a single aspect of the said Opinion. This single aspect is the one which pertains to that ratification of an act of his agent which is submitted to flow from the facts as represented by Mr. Jones to the Superior Court (Opinion: page 4, line 2 to page 5, line 2, page 11, line 7 to page 12, line 19). Specifically, we respectfully submit that the Court of Appeal's views relative to the assumed non-existence of such ratification, are predicated upon a factual assumption which is disclosed by the record to be incorrect. This being so, we submit that the actual facts, revealed by the record, are such as clearly to entitle us to prevail in respect of the ratification theory. (R.W. Benson and J.B. Kessler (1986) Legalese v. Plain English, Loyola Law Review, 20:301.)

The authors recognize as distinctly pompous: "needless to say," "to but a single aspect," and "clearly to entitle us to prevail." (Id., at p. 310.) "Needless to say" is too snide for general usage, but "clearly to entitle us to prevail" is the norm, a flash point where the legalese defenses against pompous eruptions generally fail. Proclaiming the clear superiority of one's arguments arrogantly tells the court to accept your say-so as authoritative. Finally, "to but a single aspect" is subtler, showing how legalese disguises pomposity but sometimes only partly succeeds. The awkward and redundant "but" is legalese; here, it also expresses actual pomposity by flaunting the lawyer's grace in filing a narrowly focused brief.

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