When It Comes To Adverb Use In Legal Documents, Know Your Audience


We here at Abnormal Use took notice of a recent Wall Street Journal article which examined the use of adverbs in legal documents in the United States.  The article highlights the impact that the usage of adverbs have had in SCOTUS jurisprudence.  For example, in the recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, the Court was faced with the determination of whether certain regulations “substantially burden the exercise of religion” as defined by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2759, 189 L. Ed. 2d 675 (2014).  In a recent “net neutrality” case, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was forced to determine the impact of a rule requiring service providers to “serve the public indiscriminately.” Verizon v. F.C.C., 740 F.3d 623, 655-56 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

In the piece, the WSJ examines the glut of adverbs in the legal system against the backdrop of numerous opinions of successful writers, including Stephen King, who warns against the use of adverbs:

No part of speech has had to put up with so much adversity as the adverb. The grammatical equivalent of cheap cologne or trans fat, the adverb is supposed to be used sparingly, if at all, to modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. As Stephen King succinctly put it: “The adverb is not your friend.”

However, the article acknowledges that research on the subject has yielded mixed results:

According to a 2008 study by two scholars at the University of Oregon School of Law and Brigham Young University, lawyers who stuff so-call intensifier adverbs in their legal briefs—words such as “very,” “obviously,” “clearly,” “absolutely” and “really”—are more likely to lose an appeal in court than attorneys who avoid those “weasel words,” as Mr. Garner described them. But notably, the study found that the habit can actually work in a lawyer’s favor if the presiding judge really likes to use those adverbs, too.

Our take is that lawyers should be aware of their audience.  If the audience likes adverbs, use adverbs.  If the audience hates adverbs, don’t use adverbs.  If you are unsure whether your audience likes adverbs, or if you are writing a mystery novel in your free time, err on the side of avoiding adverbs. But do so carefully.

(Hat Tip: ABA Journal).

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