Monday, November 29, 2010

The Elements of Style

In a front page piece on the increasing prolixity and ambiguousness of Supreme Court decisions, Times reporter Adam Liptak found that the search for unanimity—an aim that Chief Justice Roberts has prioritized—has led to directionlessness, which may account for the increasing length of decisions. “Unanimous opinions are the most complex,” Liptak writes, citing a recent study (“Justices Are Long on Words but Short on Guidance,” NYT, 11/18/10). Interestingly, shortly after the lead-in, Liptak points to the fact that Brown v. Board of Education, a sweeping decision in the history of jurisprudence, took 4,700 words, while the recent Parents Involved v. Seattle, which only dealt with a part of the Brown case, racked up ten times the verbiage, “enough to rival a short novel.” (The same is true of “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, coming in at a cool 48,000 words, “or about the length of The Great Gatsby.”) Brown, for all its brevity, improved human life. Liptak’s piece, however, also illustrates that consensus is not the only cause of opaqueness. “A decision in May,” writes Liptak, “striking down life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders who did not kill anyone said only that states must provide ‘some meaningful opportunity to obtain release.’” Here, a decision that the court was divided on also seemed to be infected with an equanimity that castrated the very basis of the ruling. Of the decision’s vague phraseology, Justice Thomas wondered, according to Liptak, “what that could possibly mean.” Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a classic whose application has enormous impact both on syntax and, ultimately, thought. It was once de rigeur in our country’s finest institutions of higher learning. Simplicity was one of the underlying principals for composing pity, grammatically tight texts. Yet, “omit needless words,” one of Strunk and White’s prescriptions for concise writing, is not something that can always be applied when it comes to writing laws that appeal to all, or strive not to offend certain constituencies. 


  1. "Omit needless words." Repeat 3X. Nuff said.

  2. And further by way of answering the objection to brevity: "Better to fall flat on your face than lean over too far backwards." (Moral of "The Bear Who Could Let It Alone," from FABLES FOR OUR TIME, by James Thurber.)


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