Choosing the Right Word

img_0750Adverbs and adjectives are not a sign of good persuasive writing. If you find yourself using lots of adverbs or adjectives to get your point across, you’re probably making bad word choices. Why? Because adverbs modify verbs, and adjectives modify nouns—and if your verbs and nouns need modifying, then they probably aren’t the verbs and nouns you should be using.

How effective can simple nouns and verbs be? Consider the following three sentences:

  1. The man struck the girl.
  2. The father spanked the child.
  3. The guard subdued the thief.

Note how none of these sentences uses adverbs or adjectives—and none of them is ornate in its vocabulary (i.e., we don’t have to pull out a thesaurus to write these sentences). But put yourself in the shoes of the judicial reader—a decision-maker who ultimately must pick a side in the given conflict. The reader who knows she must pick a side, after reading each of these sentences, is going to be nudged one way or the other, based on “natural” personal and cultural biases.

Most reasonable people, after reading sentence #1, will side with the girl. Why? Because we think of a “man” as older, bigger, and stronger than a “girl”—and because the verb “struck” sounds aggressive and violent. The “girl” sounds like a victim, and most people tend to sympathize with victims.

Conversely, most reasonable people, after reading sentence #3, will side with the guard—because a “guard” has official status and moral authority over a “thief,” who (by definition) has done something wrong. The verb “subdued” also sounds like a neutral, appropriate way for a guard to deal with a thief. It sounds like the guard is doing his job, and most people tend to support this. We might feel a little differently if the sentence said the guard “struck” the thief, because then the guard might be abusing his power and the thief might start to look like a victim. But “subdued” sounds okay, so we tend to side with the guard.

Sentence #2 is different: reasonable people can (and do) disagree about whose side to be on, after reading this sentence. I’ve conducted this exercise in countless writing classes, and invariably about 99% of the class is on the girl’s side in sentence #1, about 99% is on the guard’s side in sentence #3, but the class splits down the middle over sentence #2. Why? Because we have conflicting feelings about spanking our kids—which means we’re apprehensive; we’d like to know more about the situation before we pick a side.

How does all this apply to legal writing? Well, first we have to recognize that all three of these sentences can be describing the same factual scenario. Imagine: a man works as a plain-clothes guard at the mall; a group of teenage girls are caught shoplifting by a store clerk and they run; the man catches one of the girls by the coat and she struggles to get loose; he realizes it’s his 13-year-old step-daughter and he starts spanking her right there in the mall; the step-daughter hates her step-father and later sues him for assaulting and humiliating her in public.

In simple terms, three different witnesses could describe what they saw in three different ways. No hyperbole. No adverbs or adjectives. Just simple statements of fact:

  1. The man struck the girl.
  2. The father spanked the child.
  3. The guard subdued the thief.

Yet, depending on which version of “the facts” is presented to the reader, the reader (who must pick a side) will be nudged toward one side or the other. That is, by making simple changes in word choice, from statement #1 to statement #3, we can nudge the judicial reader toward switching sides. (Remember: everyone sides with “the girl” in statement #1, but everyone sides with “the guard” in statement #3.)

That’s how effective good word-choice can be.

Now, some of you may be asking, “Why include sentence #2?” Well, because sometimes we want the reader to be more apprehensive, or to refrain from judgment. Maybe we want to emphasize the complexity or ambiguity of the situation. This can be particularly effective if, for example, the decision-maker is already predisposed to side against your client. Or maybe your client really is the bad actor in this situation. It might not be possible, through mere word choice, to nudge the reader into fully siding with your client—but maybe you can encourage the decision-maker to soften her predisposition, by suggesting the scenario is more ambiguous than it appears at first glance.

All this can be done subtly, with the right nouns and verbs.

But be sure to keep it honest and accurate. Word choice is a writing tool, which means it’s also a lawyering tool, but as lawyers we are bound by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. You should use word choice effectively to argue vigorously for your client—but don’t get carried away. The last thing you want to do is misrepresent the facts through crazy word choices. That won’t encourage the judicial reader to do anything in your favor.

[This post appeared previously here.]