By Anna Swift • March 05, 2017•Writers in Residence
As a judicial clerk, I quickly learned I enjoyed using the word "that." I also apparently enjoyed using the word "of." How do I know this? My co-clerks, who were assigned the task of initially editing the drafts of judicial opinions I had written, weren't as crazy about those words and expressed their preference with red circles to indicate deletion. In other words, those were words commonly edited out of my drafts (and for good reason). For my part, I tried to avoid the construction "it is" or "there are" when not referring to an actual antecedent and partook in some circling of my own whenever I saw such constructions.
In my last column installment, I introduced the principle of concision and focused on showing how, even though legal writers should strive for concision, concision shouldn't give way to principles of clarity and convincingness (in other words, I focused on how legal writers tend to omit certain types of words that probably shouldn't be omitted). In this installment, I intend to switch gears by showing specific instances of when the principle of concision should, generally-speaking, rule the day (in other words, I'll focus on how legal writers tend not to omit certain words that could stand to be omitted). Indeed, in certain contexts, certain words typically don't add much value to a piece of legal writing but instead unnecessarily clog up the final product. What are these words of which I speak? Who are these common culprits that are already probably known but are also easily overlooked when editing for concision? The title of this installment says it all: "that," "of," and variants of "it is." Let's discuss each in turn, starting with "that."
Grab any piece of academic writing, and I guarantee that the word "that" will more likely than not make an appearance. Perhaps the popularity of this word should come as no surprise, though, given that the word can function as one of five different parts of speech. (See http://partofspeech.org/what-part-of-speech-is-that/.) Although the word shouldn't be omitted when serving as a pronoun, adjective, adverb, or article, many times it can be removed seamlessly and without detriment when serving as a mere conjunction. Let's look at an example: The witness said that she didn't initially understand what had happened between the defendant and the victim.
How helpful is the word "that"? Well, let's just take it out and see: The witness said she didn't initially understand what had happened between the defendant and the victim.
Does this new sentence seem just like a repeat of the first sentence? Probably so because the word "that" was implied in this new sentence, and its inclusion makes no real difference to the reader. But when might a legal writer consider keeping the word? Let's look at a slightly different example: The witness said many things were going wrong in his life.
Here, I'd include the word "that" between "said" and "many." Why? Because the first part of the sentence (“The witness said many things”) could express a complete thought all on its own (i.e., that the witness expressed a number of thoughts). Only by continuing to read does the reader realize that the phrase "many things" refers to events in the witness's life and not to an expression of various thoughts. Consequently, the reader is forced to switch gears when she or he recognizes that the sentence continues. Why not, then, ensure that the reader is set up for the correct interpretation from the get-go by including the word "that"? (Another time to keep the word is when it introduces more than one clause, as in, The witness said that many things were going wrong in his life but that he thought things would soon take a turn for the better.) Legal writers must remember that the point of being concise is to save time on the part of the reader; if being concise causes the reader to reread a sentence, however, then concision is counterproductive and, quite honestly, the enemy of the good.
Now let's turn to a brief discussion on the word "of." Unlike the word "that," "of" only serves as a preposition (see http://partofspeech.org/category/part-of-speech-by-word/). When the word "of" is used to indicate possession, let's simply remember that it can easily (and should) be replaced with an apostrophe. Of course, might there be times when the word should be kept? If it prevents a sentence from becoming too convoluted, then yes. For example, consider this sentence: The witness testified about the defendant's mother's house's wonderful features. In this case, the word "of" could make the sentence easier to read and thereby prevent any rereading. Observe: The witness testified about the wonderful features of the house owned by the defendant's mother. Surely this new sentence is much easier to read.
Having considered the words "that" and "of," let's finally look at the construction "it is" and its variants. "It is" is an expletive (and, no, I'm not referring to curse words here). Expletives are used as fillers (see https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expletive), common to how speakers insert an "um" or "you know" into their speeches when giving themselves time to organize their thoughts. Whenever introducing a concept with the construction "it is" or a variant, consider taking the construction out. For example, look at this sentence: There are many things wrong with the argument.
The construction "there are" is superfluous. How do I know? Take the construction out, and let's see whether the meaning of the sentence has changed in any way: Many things are wrong with the argument. This new sentence is only shorter by one word, but it is also stronger because the true focus of the sentence ("many things") is introduced straight away. Why delay?
In this column installment, I've discussed the use of the words "that," "of," and variants of "it is." Specifically, I've argued for their general omission but also shown some instances in which their presence might be kept to ensure that the reader doesn't feel compelled to reread the sentence (which defeats the purpose of being concise in the first place). In my next installment, I'll focus on a particular part of speech that exists purely to make language more concise but that should be used with care. Return next month to read about the surprisingly complicated topic of pronouns.