Saturday, February 12, 2011

Formality. Part 4. The celebration of informality and the unsettled status of contractions

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“Plain writing” means Informal register. As the Chart depicts, Informal is the better register insofar as Personal address (yellow) is direct and Hyper-grammatical rules (green) are disregarded; but Formal is better insofar as Succinctness (blue) is uncompromised and Universality (gray) is preferred. This assessment, it’s crucial to understand, brackets off register’s norms (Column 6): reducing or widening the gap between the (otherwise) effective and the normative is the measure of a trend’s help or harm.

Twice, the plain-writing trend beneficially shifted the prevailing legal register. First, it persuaded practically everyone that the Ceremonial register is ineffective. Second—its greatest triumph—it dethroned the Formal register’s Hyper-grammatical rules, and allied with the descriptive linguists, made laughing stock of pseudo-grammatical Formalities, such as avoiding conjunctions at the beginning of sentences or prepositions at their end.

But also, plain writing detrimentally shifted the prevailing register, favoring Naturalness over Succinctness to diminish written language’s unique expressive power. Some examples. Bryan Garner advises legal writers to average no more than 20 words per sentence; Wayne Schiess advocates (and writes) very short paragraphs; and plain-language exponents in general write loosely, with abundant phrasal verbs.

A collateral detriment comprises the insouciant breaches encouraged by plain-writing exponents, who tend to view brief writing from a writer’s standpoint more than a lawyer’s and fail to curb a writer’s natural resentment of stymying conventions. The best example is Bryan Garner’s suggestion to replace inline citation with footnotes, breaching the powerful status Formality by compelling the judge to change his work habits, an innovation worse than a distance-Formality breach of register. The suggested practice is distracting and inefficient, and it affronts the judge to steal expressive ease by imposing on him. Using an unorthodox citation convention assumes a risk whose harmfulness writers— convinced they’re improving their briefs’ persuasiveness, while really sabotaging it by angering the judge—might never discover.

Breaching mere distance Formalities by using the wrong register isn’t innocuous, and the contraction is the worst distance-Formality breach plain writers urge on us. (I was guilty of dispensing that bad advice when I analyzed the status Formality and excluded the distance Formalities.) Notice in the Chart that contraction avoidance is a Hyper-grammatical rule (green), but anomalously, its dominant register (column 6) is Formal. Avoiding contractions is the very strongest Hyper-grammatical rule: more than any other Informality, contractions smack of conversationality, and introducing them is alienating. The judge won’t think you’re uppity, as when you force him to adjust to different formats, but as Justice Scalia once remarked, he’ll infer you’re trying to be chummy.

A natural question is why the plain-writing trend not only challenges inappropriate Formalities but also repudiates the appropriate, especially by de-emphasizing Succinctness. After law departments commodified legal-writing instruction, plain writing’s teachability fortified it as the main reformist approach to brief writing. Meanwhile, commodification devalues writing teachers, isolating them and interesting them in reducing social distance. Writing teachers are an out-group in law, and the plain-writing trend, for good and ill, expresses their interest in abolishing the markers of social distance.

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