Don’t wind up, just punch

Good writers know that the most effective place in a sentence to make a point is the end. And they also know not to squander the limited patience and attention of their readers with flabby or meaningless prose.

It is very common in legal briefs to see writing that violates these principles. You will frequently find sentences that contain powerfully evocative images which can barely be discerned, since they are buried in the middle of the sentence and swathed in layers of professional gabble.

The example that we’ll look at comes from a petitioner’s brief to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The brief is on behalf of the widows of two miners killed in a mine fire. If you read the whole brief, though, you won’t find a single sentence that says so as starkly as that. Shouldn’t you?

This is the last sentence of the Summary of Argument section, and as such should be one of the most devastatingly direct, effective, and memorable in the whole brief. Let’s see if it is:

It is clear, therefore, that under West Virginia’s settled principles for determining the existence of a tort duty of care, a private mine inspector whose negligence causes a miner’s death owes a duty and is liable to the deceased miner and his heirs.

The emotional heart of that sentence is  “causes a miner’s death.” Unlike real hearts, emotional hearts should not be buried deep inside, but should be worn on the sleeve for all to see. Here “death” should be the last word in the sentence, and should be ringing in the judge’s ears as he scans down two inches to start reading the argument proper. Let’s move it to the end:

It is clear, therefore, that under West Virginia’s settled principles for determining the existence of a tort duty of care, a private mine inspector owes a duty and is liable to a miner and his heirs if his negligence causes the miner’s death.

That’s a big improvement, but problems remain. One is the weak action in “his negligence causes the miner’s death.” Another is the vagueness of “owes a duty and is liable.” Let’s fix those:

It is clear, therefore, that under West Virginia’s settled principles for determining the existence of a tort duty of care, a private mine inspector is accountable to a miner’s heirs if he bungles an inspection and so causes the miner’s death.

(You may prefer “and so kills the miner”; it strikes me as just a bit too much, but it would be the right phrasing with the right judge.) The last problem is the laborious lead-in, which stacks a meaningless “it is clear” with  four prepositional phrases. This is like a boxer feebly windmilling his arms five times before trying to land a punch. Don’t do that—just step up and punch:

A private mine inspector is accountable to a miner’s heirs if he bungles an inspection and so causes the miner’s death.

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