ABA Journal

Textual citations make legal writing onerous, for lawyers and nonlawyers alike


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Photo of Bryan Garner by Terri Glanger.

Legal writing is notoriously dull, slow, cumbersome, obtuse, roundabout and pedantic. There are many reasons: (1) unnecessary jargon, (2) overreliance on abstract nouns, (3) overlong sentences, (4) overlong paragraphs, and (5) the failure to differentiate between useful and useless details. The overuse of passive voice goes without saying. Small wonder that so few readers will be willing to give most legal writing a good, close reading. You have to be paid to read the stuff, and even then it’s mostly off-putting—sometimes mind-crushing—drudgery.

Although legal writing is the least skimmable prose known to humankind, those who create it commonly do something that forces readers to skip over dozens, even hundreds, of characters in almost every paragraph. I refer, of course, to citations: the volume numbers and page numbers that clutter lawyers’ prose. These superfluous characters amount to useless detail that distracts the reader from the content. This habit also results in two evils that you might think contradictory: overlong sentences and paragraphs on the one hand (the extra characters bulk it up, after all), and underdeveloped paragraphs on the other.

Click here to read the rest of “Numerical Pollution” from the February issue of the ABA Journal.

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