One of the best pure writers I have ever seen was a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University named Emily (she gave me permission to use her first name). She could amalgamate and compress numerous, complex source articles into a hyper-lucid page or two, which on top of that was mellifluous when read aloud. Just the memory still gives me goosebumps.
Once Emily complained to me that professors in her major often dinged her for submitting assignments that did not meet the page requirement. “I wish they understood how hard it is to be so brief.”
I thought of Emily the other day when I read scholar and blogger Bryan A. Garner’s post Law Prose Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms, which I quote here in full:
Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.
This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if this means making the writer’s job more difficult.
A certain judicial opinion defines the following terms: EFP, FCM, HC, NYME, REDCO, ROI, and TOI. Before we know it, we read that an FCM represents REDCO before NYME, expecting an improved ROI, but that the FCM also has duties to TOI, under EFP-1, to certify that TOI owned enough HCs to cover its EFP obligations. To most readers, it’s all gibberish.
Instead, use real words. Make it succinct, but use real words. Otherwise, your readers will rebel by putting your prose down and never again returning to it—or if they do return to it, they’ll detest you.
Dear Reader, Try to make the above piece of prose more clear or more concise. I tried; couldn’t. Emily could probably give it a whirl, but I don’t know what she would come up with.
Readers of this blog know how much we esteem author Garner‘s work, the scope of which is wholly humbling:
Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges—cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia—and Better Business Writing, a work focused on the art of communicating in the business world, published by the Harvard Business Review.
His magnum opus is the 942-page Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. It is widely considered the preeminent authority on questions of English usage.
If you are already feeling lazy today, check out these links another time. Just a recommendation.