Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tighten your legal writing by reducing reliance on adverbs

Most adverbs are unnecessary according to Bryan Garner and other writing experts. Instead, just choose stronger verbs. The Lawyerist blog has a helpful post summarizing this particular bit of self-editing advice.

Adverbs are words that modify—usually for emphasis—verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases. As Lily Rothman writes in The Atlantic, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs because even though “there are many times when a more precise verb can narrow the gap in understanding,” there are other times when “verbs can’t be fine-tuned any further.”

But when adverbs appear repeatedly in legal writing, they greatly inhibit good diction, terribly annoy the reader, and depressingly weaken the words the writer is contrivedly modifying. Indeed, although unnecessary adverbs might be a dubious luxury of non-lawyers, they can poison otherwise good legal writing. So says the following writing authorities, a Supreme Court Justice, and a fiction writer, all quoted here for good measure:

  • Strunk & White, The Elements of Style: “Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs . . . .”
  • John Trimble, Writing With Style: “Minimize your adverbs . . . especially trite intensifiers like very, extremely, really, clearly, and terribly, which show a 90% failure rate.”
  • Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style: “[A]dverbs often weaken verbs. Think of the best single word instead of warming up a tepid one with a qualifier.”
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well : “Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence any annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. . . . Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the winning athlete grinned widely.”
  • Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Interview with Bryan A. Garner: “I think adverbs are a cop-out. They’re a way for you to qualify, and if you don’t use them, it forces you to think through the conclusion of your sentence. And it forces you to confront the significance of your word choice, the importance of your diction.”
  • Stephen King, On Writing: “The adverb is not your friend. . . . Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. . . . I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

All legal writers—especially law clerks and young associates—should heed this advice.

Want some examples of how to identify and then eliminate unncessary adverbs, then click here to continue reading.


September 9, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Possible AALS Panel on Advancing Student Scholarship and on Advancing Joint Faculty-Student Scholarship

Professor Joan MacLeod Heminway (Tenn.) has asked us to pass along the following:

The Association of American Law Schools Committee on Research is considering putting on an AALS panel on (1) how we law professors can advance student scholarship and (related but separately) (2) how we can advance joint faculty-student scholarship. 

Most student law review notes (or other student articles) are written as independent study projects or, occasionally, as individual term papers in seminars.  But are there other approaches that you have seen tried or particular ways of structuring independent study projects or seminar term papers that have been especially successful?  Most faculty members don’t cowrite articles with students.  But have you seen techniques or approaches that helped such collaborative projects succeed—or ones that led them to fail?

 The Committee has asked us to identify some ideas that the panel can more closely explore, and we’d much appreciate any tips that you could pass along.  If you can give us just a few sentences that describe different models for fostering student or faculty-student scholarship that you have seen—whether those sentences include recommendations, cautionary tales, or just neutral reports—we’d love to see them.  Please e-mail them to either Joan Heminway ( or Eugene Volokh (  Submissions received by October 1 would be most useful to us in our planning, but feel free to respond later if you can’t reply by then.


September 9, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

September 10 is the birthday of poet Mary Oliver.  Here is her poem, “Wild Geese,” which I share with my students:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


September 9, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)