On Clarity

punctuation colorful BBC


As a first-year law student I, along with my peers, had to read and sort out a seeming infinitude of cases written by appellate judges whose writing skills varied widely. Navigating the dense prose of the tomes we lugged around in outsize briefcases seemed at times like slogging through a trough of fudge. I was once grilled unforgettably in class by my contracts professor for having reached the wrong conclusion about the law established by a historic case. My reading had led me to deduce the opposite of what the judge had actually decided.

I appreciate the work of Linda Greenhouse, who writes a regular column for The NYTimes about the Supreme Court and the law. Her profession is to parse what judges write, tease significance from it, and write clearly about it. In such a writer I learn from a rare stylistic slip as well as from her customary excellence.

Item (the emphasis is mine):

The cases I’ve discussed here that were not, as they reached the court, on many people’s radar — not the high-profile cases like the [T****] administration’s defense of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, in a case to be argued this month, or the immigration, abortion and Affordable Care Act cases now filling the pipeline to the Supreme Court. Looking ahead, is there any chance the court will avoid mirroring the country’s cavernous polarization — and any way we won’t all be the poorer if that proves to be the case?

(Linda Greenhouse, “A Supreme Court Do-Over,” NYTimes, 4-11-19)

In general, an opinion piece demands a strong, clear wind-up. Nuance can be appropriate in the body of the article, but the reader expects no puzzles at the end. The concluding paragraph cited above strikes me as flawed.

The “that” in the first line introduces a dangling subordinate clause; it’s never completed with its own verb. The verbose interpolation introduced by the first double dash encourages this lapse. The writer loses her beginning.

The second double dash introduces a question that derailed me because of how I wanted to understand “any way”; I read the phrase initially as an equivalent of “nevertheless”; however, that reading asks for the inversion “won’t we”: “— and any way won’t we all be the poorer if that proves to be the case?” Then I realized that it also requires “any way” to be written as one word: “anyway.”

Upon another re-reading I concluded that what is meant would become clearer if it were put like this: “— and is there any way we won’t all be the poorer if that proves to be the case?”

In this manner, then, I have furnished a wooly elucidation to a wooly conclusion in the best tradition of appellate judges.

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.