Monday, April 6, 2015

The Production Possibilities Frontier of Clever Writing

I have a theory that clever turns of phrase in writing are inherently imprecise.  Why?  The theory goes that clever writing requires effort, as does accurate writing, and you necessarily pick one over the other.  Thus, a production possibilities frontier -- the more of one (cleverness) the less of the other (accuracy) and vice versa. 

Thanks to  K=accuracy and C=cleverness, in my example.
For that reason alliteration and rhyming, both reasonably common in legal writing, should be looked upon with suspicion.

An example: I've spent more time with Brown Shoe in recent weeks than I care to recount.  Brown Shoe contains two statements of a possible rule.  One:  " It is competition, not competitors, which the Act protects."  Another:  "[W]e cannot fail to recognize Congress' desire to promote competition through the protection of viable, small, locally owned business."  The first is pure dicta.  The second is the rule of law.  Which gets the most airplay?  The pleasingly alliterative phrase "competition, not competitors."  

Might Brown Shoe be better understood by history if Chief Justice Warren had written instead, "The Clayton Act does not exist to keep individual firms in business unless doing so works to the benefit of the competitive process."  First, it would be more accurate.  (Contrary to the implication of Warren's clever phrase, competition and competitors are not antonyms.)  Second, it would not be nearly as quotable.

What if we made an effort to write what is accurate and not what sounds nice?  We would be more likely to get it right and less likely to spin clever but inaccurate turns of phrase that get abused going forward.

1 comment:

  1. A writing instinct with meaning imperfectly expressed . . .