Bryan Garner on Words

65 ABA Journal Bryan Garner on Words articles.

Legal writers can learn a lot from these unparalleled unpublished opinions

In Bryan A. Garner’s view, Judge Thomas M. Reavley of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shows us how to spend more time thinking and less time writing.

The gentle art of impeaching adversaries

The best way to damage an adversary’s positions when responding is to quote that person’s own words back to the judge or jury and then to demonstrate how inaccurate they were.

Is jargon a ‘perversion of language’? Jeremy Bentham on legislation and legal style

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is known as a philosopher, economist and legal theorist whose work greatly influenced 19th-century legislation. He embarked on reforming many things, including legal language. A utilitarian, Bentham detested legal jargon, which he called the “perversion of language to the purpose of securing ignorance and misconception of the law on the part of the people.” It “converts the whole field of legislation into a thicket, impenetrable to the legislator’s eye: when he does work, he works blindfold; he works at random, at the hazard of creating more mischief than he cures.”

You Have a Point There: Test your punctuation skills with a little quiz

Professional copy editors tend to edit by rules that can be studied and learned. For each passage, choose the best answer that says something true about the quiz sentence.

Old-fashioned textualism is all about interpretation, not legislating from the bench

Although some lawyers and judges will always care more about policy arguments, nobody can safely ignore grappling with textual arguments.

Test your knowledge of these not-so-everyday words

Among language lovers, Johnson O’Connor is best known for his work in understanding how vocabulary augmentation is a major key in unlocking human potential. O’Connor used these words in the 1940s to test American adults, some college-educated and some not.

Plain talk: A conversation on simplicity with Rudolf Flesch

Seeking to bring the scientific method to bear on readability, Rudolph Flesch advocated a simple and direct style of writing: short paragraphs, short sentences, few prefixes and suffixes, and relative informality. He developed two measures for assessing readability: (1) reading ease and (2) human interest.

Contract ‘busts’: Trying to decipher provisions that literally make no sense

Some contractual provisions, perpetuated in deal after deal, make no literal sense. The problems are threefold: (1) whenever such a document is retyped, clerical errors are likely to occur; (2) the sameness of the party designations leads to cognitive difficulties for all readers—including the drafters themselves—because the only visual difference is the two-character suffix at the end; and (3) clients tend to resent such documents not just for their unreadability, but also for their appearing to be forms that the lawyer took little care in adapting.

Our shifting meanings: Test your knowledge of modern usage

In each question that follows, one choice is a misusage that wouldn’t pass muster with a good copy editor. See whether you can recognize the traditionally correct forms.

How do you say it? Try this quiz to evaluate your pronunciation skills

Over time, words can change in spelling, meaning and pronunciation. In this quiz, choose the pronunciation favored in the late 19th century through the 20th.

Some posthumous wisdom on writing from Robert Louis Stevenson

The novelist’s posthumous 1920 essay collection, Learning to Write, inspires an interrogatory with the ABA Journal’s legal writing advocate.

Strive for clarity and context in emails that address legal questions

There’s a widespread problem in the way junior lawyers answer questions by email. They tend to respond to moderately complex legal questions merely with answers—without explicitly repeating the question.

Can a town be a museum? A case may hinge on the precision of definitions

Does the usual meaning of a word carry over to a legal definition? The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on this question in a case involving sports hero Jim Thorpe.

Every lawyer a lexicographer: Defining words with clarity, brevity and practicality

Lawyers are constantly creating definitions, seemingly to a greater extent as time goes by. These definitions appear mostly in transactional practice (contracts, wills, etc.) but also in legislative and regulatory work (statutes and rules)—and even in briefs.

Booking the Dumpster: The tragedy of ‘deaccessioning’ books from university libraries

Book research shouldn’t be superseded by online research. Yet university libraries are unloading millions of unread volumes.

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