LovelyLadyLaw7

Cohesion in Legal Writing: Make It Flow

In the world of science, the concept of cohesion refers to the "act, state or process of sticking together," as when, for example, a water molecule attracts to another water molecule.  (See http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cohesion.)  In the world of legal writing, the concept carries essentially the same meaning, albeit in a different context.  While molecular forces act as the glue that holds molecules together in a substance, words in a sentence are what allow the sentences in a paragraph to stick together.  But, given that the concept of cohesion isn't exactly linguistically self-explanatory, how does a legal writer achieve cohesion in a piece of legal writing, and what does it even mean for sentences to be "stuck" together?

In my last column installment, I concluded my overall discussion on the principle of concision.  In this installment, the time has come to embark on a discussion of this new principle of cohesion.  Specifically, I'll explain and demonstrate the meaning of the principle by way of an analogy and an example.  Additionally, I'll consider how a legal writer can achieve cohesion in a piece of legal writing while still paying due respect to the time-honored principle of concision.  So let's begin.  

According to the online Dictionary.com (see http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cohesion), the term "cohesion" is defined as "the property of unity in a written text ... that stems from links among its surface elements, as when words in one sentence are repeated in another ...."  In other words, a cohesive piece of legal writing is one that flows (like how one river flows into another).  It's one in which each sentence flows into the next so that the reader can quickly and easily understand the connection between each sentence and, ultimately, how each sentence builds on the knowledge derived from the prior sentence.  Such connections result in a smooth reading experience.

For example, consider this series of sentences: (1) Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, hearsay evidence is a type of evidence that is generally inadmissible at trial, unless an exception applies.  (2) In other words, hearsay evidence is only admissible if an exception applies.  (3) In this regard, the exceptions to the rule against hearsay can be found in Rules 803 and 804.  (4) For example, under Rule 803, an excited utterance is not excluded by the rule against hearsay.  (5) Likewise not excluded under Rule 803 is a present sense impression.  (6) In addition to these two exceptions, plenty more exist in Rules 803 and 804.  (7) Therefore, attorneys should always consult these two rules when contemplating whether hearsay evidence should or shouldn't come in as evidence at trial.

In the above example, each sentence is connected to the next.  Sentences (1) and (2) are connected by the transition phrase "in other words" and the repetition of the term "hearsay evidence" while sentences (2) and (3) are connected by the transition phrase "in this regard" and the repetition of the word "exception(s)."  Sentences (3) and (4) are connected by the transition phrase "for example," (4) and (5) by the transition word "likewise," (5) and (6) by the transition phrase "in addition to," and (6) and (7) by the transition word "therefore."

As the above example demonstrates, transition/linking words and repeating words are key to creating a sense of cohesion.  But is there a way to create not only a sense of cohesion but also a sense of concision in a piece of legal writing?  During the course of my judicial clerkship, I learned that transition/linking words aren't always necessary when they can be implied.  Therefore, using the same example from above, let's remove the transition/linking words and reorder a few of the remaining words to see what happens.  When revised, the example would read as shown below.

(1) Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, a type of evidence that is generally inadmissible at trial, unless an exception applies, is hearsay evidence.  (2) Hearsay evidence is only admissible if an exception applies.  (3)  The exceptions to the rule against hearsay can be found in Rules 803 and 804.  (4) Under Rule 803, an excited utterance and a present sense impression are not excluded by the rule against hearsay.  (5) Plenty more exceptions exist in Rules 803 and 804.  (6) These two rules should always be consulted by attorneys who contemplate whether hearsay evidence should or shouldn't come in as evidence at trial.

In the above example, although the previously used transition/linking words are omitted, the sentences still generally flow into each other because each sentence clearly builds on the previous one.  Thus, achieving cohesion along with concision is possible. 

Nonetheless, sometimes a transition/linking word is valuable for its ability to emphasize a point.  Therefore, perhaps the best presentation of the above example is one that balances the principles of cohesion and concision.  See below for an example.

(1) Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, a type of evidence that is generally inadmissible at trial, unless an exception applies, is hearsay evidence.  (2) Hearsay evidence is only admissible if an exception applies.  (3) The exceptions to the rule against hearsay can be found in Rules 803 and 804.  (4) Under Rule 803, for example, an excited utterance and a present sense impression are not excluded by the rule against hearsay.  (5) Because plenty more exceptions exist in Rules 803 and 804, attorneys should always consult these two rules when contemplating whether hearsay evidence should or shouldn't come in as evidence at trial.

The above example attempts to be concise and cohesive.  Closely related to the principle of cohesion is the principle of coherence.  If cohesion refers to the connection between each sentence in a paragraph, then coherence refers to the underlying theme of a paragraph.  In other words, the information expressed in the sentences should all amount to a central idea.  (See http://www.dictionary.com/browse/coherence for a definition of the concept.)

In this column installment, I've explored the principle of cohesion and demonstrated how to balance that principle against the principle of concision.  In my next installment, I'll move onto yet another principle of writing.  Return next month to read about the relatively straightforward--but nonetheless noteworthy--principle of consistency.

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