LawProse Lesson #233: Can’t judges just look past trivial errors?
More often than you might think, a lawyer will say to me: “Why care so much about tiny points of correctness? A judge isn’t going to rule against you just because you’ve misspelled de minimis.” True enough, but naive. This view disregards the science behind the “halo effect”: a strong showing in matters of form strongly predisposes readers to think you’re trustworthy in matters of substance—and a weak initial showing predisposes the reader to think you’re unreliable in more ways than bad spelling. And here’s another point: sloppy, substandard, ungrammatical language can really irritate educated readers. It distracts them and makes them less likely—even unwilling—to align themselves with you. Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: they spoil the tune. And wrong words make readers stop thinking about your message and start pondering your educational and professional deficits. You want the judge to think about the strength of your argument, not about how many typos and solecisms you’ve committed. That’s a handicap no lawyer should complacently accept. So you must worry about your command of the language. Further reading: Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case 61–64 (2008). Garner on Language and Writing 211–221 (2009).