Move quickly to the heart of a sentence

Legal readers want you to get to the point as quickly as possible.

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Legal readers want you to get to the point as quickly as possible. This advice applies not only to your document as a whole, but also to each sentence within the document.

Move quickly to the heart of the sentence — its main subject and verb — and avoid long windups and throat-clearing. Avoid phrases like the following:

  • “It should be noted that . . . .”

  • “It is respectfully requested that . . . .”

  • “In this brief, we will argue that . . . .”

Short words like and, but, yet, and so are useful transitions and sentence-starters because they quickly propel readers into the sentence’s main idea.

According to stylist Joseph Williams, most sentences should be about characters performing actions. Williams suggests that you underline the first seven words of a sentence and ask: have you introduced a character and action yet? If not, consider whether you are unnecessarily delaying essential information.

The main parts of a sentence are the main subject, the main verb, and the main verb’s direct object (if any). These parts should usually be placed close together near the beginning of the sentence. Otherwise, you risk trying the reader’s patience by taking too long to reveal the sentence’s point.

Here’s a good example:

The lawyer filed the motion on time.

In that sentence, the lawyer is the subject, filed is the verb, and the motion is a direct object. These core sentence elements are placed next to each other with no intervening filler and presented to the reader immediately at the start of the sentence.

Here are a few improvable examples, with the sentence’s character and action in bold. Note in both cases long it takes the reader to discover what action these sentences are conveying:

Example:

“Following the passing of Shannon’s mother, but before the generator was fully installed and permitted at her residence, her estate was opened and Shannon was appointed to serve as the Personal Representative.”

Example:

“Against this backdrop, it must first be noted that, although H&R was not provided a Notice to Creditors by Shannon (for the reasons described in the Statement of Facts and Section I(c), infra, of this Argument Section), H&R nonetheless petitioned the probate court to reopen the Estate and, thereafter, was allowed to pursue the underlying action.”

Always get to the point. Reveal the sentence’s character and action early by placing the subject, verb, and direct object close together near the beginning of the sentence.


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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.