Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don’t write like a lawyer (2)

In my April 29 post I explained why you generally should not write like a lawyer. I mentioned the writing of contracts; we pay lawyers to write contracts because lawyers are good at anticipating and describing every possible event that may affect a contract. That’s why contracts sound tedious. They are not really prose.

A similar example is the writing of government regulations. Lawyers who write regulations try to anticipate every possible misinterpretation by every possible reader: smart, dumb or in between. Here’s a great example from Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian.” This is from the second and third paragraphs of Chapter 12 of his 1979 book, Less Than Words Can Say:


“It’s hard to decide whether the people at OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] are simply ineffectual bumblers or supremely talented satirists boring from within. Here, for instance, is how they define an exit: ‘That portion of a means of egress which is separated from all other spaces of the building or structure by construction or equipment as required in this subpart to provide a protected way of travel to the exit discharge.’ That’s not all. Now they elaborate on ‘means of egress’: ‘A continuous and unobstructed way of exit travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way [which] consists of three separate and distinct parts: the way of exit access, the exit, and the way of exit discharge.’

“That’s certainly ugly, and it makes us wonder whether an exit has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it just be called a way to get out. Then we wonder why a ‘means of egress’ has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it be called a way to get to the exit. If these reservations seem reasonable to you, it’s because you’re just not thinking. You are assuming that any ghastly mess of verbiage that comes from a bureaucracy needs to be simplified because it is needlessly complicated to begin with. Wrong. As it happens, that horrid prose serves its aims perfectly. Regulations of this nature have one clear purpose, and that is to answer, before the fact, any imaginable questions that might be asked in a court of law. For that purpose it’s not enough to assume that everyone knows what an exit is. Is a door an exit? Maybe, but maybe not, if a drill press just happens to be standing in front of it. Is a hole in the wall acceptable as an exit? Do you really get out of the building (let’s say it’s ready to blow up) if you go through a door and find yourself in an enclosed courtyard instead of a ‘public way’? You don’t have to be very clever to think of lots of other such questions, and the writer of this regulation is thinking about your questions. He has done a good job, although he has written something very ugly. But it’s only ugly; it’s not wrong, it’s not more complicated than it has to be.” (Boldface added.)

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a lawyer. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours. Most of what they write is intended to be exhaustive, plausible or intimidating. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. But it does mean it’s not prose as you and I think of prose.

See disclaimer.