Delete unnecessary modifiers, especially intensifiers

Delete every word that does not serve some communicative purpose.

If you would like to receive new Elegant Legal Writing posts in your inbox, please subscribe:

Legal writing is commonly peppered with unnecessary modifiers, especially intensifiers (intensifying adverbs). You should develop a critical eye for modifiers and delete any that do not provide important information or otherwise strengthen your argument.

Intensifiers such as “clearly” are occasionally useful, but your default position should be to delete them. Such words pose several problems:

  • They create a risk of being conclusory: stating a legal conclusion or making an inference without providing the reasons for the conclusion or the grounds for the inference. In legal writing, any debatable proposition must be backed by reasons such as logical predicates or citations to authority. Statements such as that the defendant’s actions were “clearly unreasonable” need backing; the word “clearly” alone does not provide such backing.

  • They may trigger reflexive defenses in the reader’s mind. Legal readers are trained to be critical and skeptical, and to evaluate propositions by verifying that they are backed by adequate reasons. When a skeptical reader encounters a statement accompanied by an intensifier such as “clearly,” the reader may feel less rather than more ready to accept the statement as true.

  • They are potentially superfluous in that they add additional verbiage that does not carry its weight by communicating additional information.

  • They may make your writing sound shrill or unprofessional.

As an example of what not to do, one litigant used the intensifier “utterly” 55 times in a single filing with statements such as the following:

  • “RBM’s original ‘overall’ response was completely non-responsive, utterly ignoring the gravamen of the RFAs.”

  • “Plaintiffs’ motion is utterly confusing and ignores Defendant's discovery responses.”

Here are some intensifiers that you should consider revising or omitting:

  • clearly

  • completely

  • obviously

  • totally

  • utterly

  • very

And here are some other empty modifiers that you can often delete with no loss in meaning:

  • actual

  • important

  • meaningful

The general lesson is to delete every word that does not serve some communicative purpose.

Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your inbox:

Please consider sharing this post with your networks:


Ryan McCarl teaches Advanced Legal Writing and researches artificial intelligence law and policy at the UCLA School of Law. He is also a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.