LawProse Lesson #294: Shorthand names

What’s in a Name (or Label or Designation)?

In the past few decades, an unfortunate habit has formed within a substantial segment of lawyerdom: giving parties alternative shorthand names. A brief-writer will mention Harold Reynolds and then add, parenthetically, “(Reynolds or Plaintiff)”; a contract-drafter, in a preamble, will write “SFX Corporation” and then add, parenthetically, “(SFX or Company).” It’s a ludicrous practice that we must unite to stamp out.

The problem is that after the audience starts reading a story about Reynolds, “Plaintiff” suddenly butts in and does something. This creates a miscue and a moment of confusion while the reader recalls (or, worse, has to scan backward to see) that Reynolds and Plaintiff are actually one and the same person. Or the reader begins to understand SFX’s obligations and then learns that “Company” must do something. The reader’s momentary confusion soon turns into consternation.

A few benighted legal writers will even give three possible names for a party. All this results from a hopeless lack of empathy for readers.

Decide on your characters’ designations and stick to them. We must demand that colleagues do this as well. Otherwise, the bad habit spreads like rot—and there’s yet one more cause to ridicule lawyers’ writing.

In defense of this odious practice, some lawyers (especially brief-writers) will say, “But some of the references are quotations, and the original documents referred to Reynolds differently.” It’s a bootless claim. Simply replace the alternative reference with your chosen label in brackets: “Right after the meeting, according to Jennings, ‘[Reynolds] walked outside and started throwing rocks at the windows.'” Perhaps she said he, or my boss, or maybe even the plaintiff or the complainant. No matter. To keep the narrative line clear and facilitate effortless comprehension, each entity must have a single, consistent label throughout. Readers must never have cause to wonder who’s being referred to.

As for the idea that variety adds interest, it’s simply not so when it comes to the basic characters in a story. If you’re reading about Cruella de Vil, you want to hear about Cruella. It doesn’t help to throw in the antagonist from time to time. That merely befuddles for a moment and, in a trice, induces the reasonable reader to conclude that the writer is a nitwit (or dunce or dunderhead).

 

Further reading:

The Winning Brief 243–50 (3d ed. 2014).

Legal Writing in Plain English 57–62 (2d ed. 2013).

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