Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Typographical Rear Guard

Absence of controversy usually lets matters of typography elude Disputed Issues. Typography is an engineering discipline resting on centuries of experience and a firm scientific basis. Occasional controversies arise at the periphery, such as specific font choices, but core typographical matters are well settled, including: Should margins be justified or ragged right? and How many spaces should separate sentences? Yet, lawyers ignore the typographers’ answers:

  • Use a ragged-right margin for word-processed text.
  • Never use more than a single space between sentences.
        The predominance of justified margins in law is easy to understand. Ideally, justified margins make columns appear columnar, a look the ancients pursued by lining up both the left and right margins when copying manuscripts. The ancient pedigree of the columnar form testifies to its inherent pleasantness. Today, trade books are usually printed justified, and proponents of typographical modernization might themselves have introduced some confusion into the discussion by urging legal writers to emulate the publishers in using only a single space to separate sentences. Doing as the book publishers is good advice for sentence spacing and bad advice for text alignment because of the strengths and limitations of desktop products. Short of the costly solution of professionally printed briefs, the decision whether to use justification or ragged-right margins depends on nontechnical considerations: Is it more important to prepossess the client or persuade the judge? The time the lawyer's staff devotes to create an almost-readable document impresses some clients, but reading a word-processed document with justified margins is an annoying experience.

        Unexpectedly, the superiority of two spaces between words is upheld by some informed legal writers, who after being set straight, switched to one space between sentences and then decided two spaces were better after all. Sometimes the reverters complain about rare circumstances where a single space is misleading. More often, they conclude that, despite its origins in the obsolete typewriter’s shortcomings, the extra space aids comprehension: the right idea for the wrong reason. (See

        Young lawyers’ loyalty to the old two-space typewriter convention is puzzling. Two biases seem relevant: 1) the
        more-is-better evidentiary heuristic and 2) false assumptions about the mechanics of reading. The more-is-better heuristic, the disposition to think that supplying more evidence (such as an extra space) necessarily produces a higher level of certainty, accounts for the tendency of reverters to stress occasional typographic anomalies, while not considering their counterparts. Supporting this explanation is the practice in the 19th century of placing a super-space, larger than the two spaces recommended for typewriters, at the ends of sentences. Redundant evidence and the importance of processing speed make applying the more-is-better heuristic misleading.

        Craving stronger cues for sentence endings expresses a mistaken theory of the reading process—or fault in the process itself—which confuses the units for eye fixations with those involved in parsing meaning. While the sentence is the basic unit of meaning, eye fixations are blind to meaning, as reader can’t distinguish meaningful units until brain analyzes input. Using the extra-large space as the automatic boundary for eye fixations, a tendency promoted by extra spacing, slows reading. Efficient readers read
        through the period and space.

        Friday, August 6, 2010

        Refudiate [sic] pomposity

        3rd entry in the Pomposity Series

        Had it been me, I would have pleaded typo! and changed the f to a p. That may show that, like Palin's Obama, I lack "cojones"; Sarah Palin stood her ground, and urging an attitude toward the lexicon more libertarian than conservative, she reveled in the Shakespearean freedom to coin new words on Twitter, igniting a discussion more interesting than her political opinions. Did Sarah Palin err as a communicator in using the neologism refudiate? What does her usage and deportment regarding it categorically reveal about her character? These are the debate’s two central issues, which I propose to take seriously.

        Refudiate is a blend, a portmanteau word, but which words does the formation blend? Most readers debating Palin’s coinage assumed refudiate blends repudiate and refute, but some readers thought repudiate and reject. Reject would be a nonstarter except Palin changed the message to reject within a few hours. Another uncertainty, mostly unnoticed, is that refuse is a strong competitor, better than refute (which is wrong). Shakespeare’s coinages didn’t burden the listener with uncertainty about the words he blended.

        Since Palin relies on blending for meaning, the ambiguity is unfortunate, but more so, ironically, is the ambiguity’s ultimate harmlessness. Since the reader doesn’t need to know what the blend adds to the meaning of
        repudiate, the blend creates nothing new: repudiate or reject does the job equally well. If Palin had intended a specific meaning, she didn’t convey it effectively: given opportunities, Palin never offered to define refudiate.

        Ray Ward at The (New) Legal Writer says Palin escapes demerit because her neologism didn’t detract from the message’s clarity, but it’s hard to see how this could be, when even a typo tends to confuse. To the point, redundancy confuses; to construe the writing, the reader tries to find some justification for using two expressions. The reader’s reaction to redundancy is to distinguish the meaning of the redundant expressions. Different word, different sense, is not only a presumption of legal interpretation but an assumption generally involved in textual interpretation. A blend of two words whose intended meaning corresponds to one or each of the blended words is as redundant as consecutive synonyms.

        This redundancy can illuminate aspects of Palin's character because it’s a redundancy of a special type, the type prevalent in legalese. Refudiate is a contraction of legalese's dreaded doublet or triplet. Had Palin chosen not to coin a word by blending synonymous constituents, she would have said:
        Peaceful Muslims, pls repudiate, reject, and refute.
        Synonyms strings—doublets, triplets, and longer—contribute to legalese’s pompous form. Common in official ceremonies, synonym strings are a form of bullying hyperbole, invoked ceremoniously by officialdoms. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lawyers adopt legalese, including traditional synonym strings, as an outlet for pomposity, and refudiate is as pompous as any conventional triplet. (See “Legalese: Pomposity Ritualized.”) Plain writing disables legalese as defense against actual pomposity, resulting in its florid eruption, and neologisms and malapropisms with embedded synonym strings function for Sarah Palin as legalese functions for pompous lawyers. When criticism interrupted Palin’s preferred style for expressing pomposity, the result was the same as when an actually pompous lawyer tries plain writing. (See “Actual Pomposity.”) With the defense blocked, a more direct pompous form emerged, which observers recognized as pompous. Palin’s overbearing refusal to admit petty error and her presumptuous Shakespeare self-comparison were eruptions of actual pomposity.