Sunday, May 27, 2012

Euphony and etymology

Roy Peter Clark proposes that writers can improve on Euphony by mixing hard Anglo-Saxon sounds with soft French-derived sounds. (Hat tip: Ray Ward.) Is this advice applicable to legal writing?

The short answer is probably “no,” but absence of an example hinders evaluating Clark’s proposal, as his evidence consists of poems Clark deems effective due to the poet’s word choice from one or the other etymology: Clark doesn’t demonstrate the effectiveness of combining etymologies. Readers might allow the possibility that both pure and mixed etymologies can promote various purposes, but Clark doesn’t give any examples of the combinatory technique he espouses.

In legal writing and most nonfiction, Clarity and Concision usually outweigh any Euphoniousness that mixing etymologies creates. Alternative expressions may relevantly differ in meaning, which should lead the writer to choose the precise meaning intended. More often, the semantic difference is irrelevant, and the shorter string is better because succinct expressions are easier to entertain.

Clark’s advice can be deleterious by bolstering a writer’s temptation to use the more verbose form, and the lure of informality often tempts today’s writers to verbosity. The longer forms sound natural by resembling speech, and a long tradition of oral culture beckons the writer to sound like a talker. “Plain-talk writing” can be a quick route to popularity but obstructs intellectual influence. Plain-talk’s intimations of chumminess help blog writers assemble a fan club, but verbosity detracts from intellectual compellingness by impairing the text’s cohesion and obscuring its implications.

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