LawProse Lesson #238: Are you coordinated, or subordinated?

LawProse Lesson #238: Are you coordinated, or subordinated?

People like being coordinated; they dislike being subordinated. So the terminology of the following tip is a little counterintuitive: subordination is good, coordination often less so. One of the elementary points of composition that really could be called “advanced” (given how many writers overlook it) is the importance of using subordinate sentence structures as opposed to coordinate ones. Coordination involves creating compound sentences: two independent clauses of equal importance joined by a conjunction such as and: We needed to file that brief first, and we filed it last week. (Poor) Subordination involves making one of the clauses dependent, so that it can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence. It’s less important. A subordinate clause normally begins with a subordinate conjunction such as because: Because we needed to file that brief first, we filed it last week. (Better) For legal writers, perhaps the handiest subordinate conjunctions are although (for your opponent’s reasons) and because (for your own reasons). The word although, which is especially useful at the outset of a sentence, ensures that your undercutting will appear in the main clause. In a sentence of under 30 words, that structure is normally more effective than but positioned between independent clauses. Consider: The deadline passed last Thursday, but Johnson never had notice of it. (Mediocre) vs. Although the deadline passed last Thursday, Johnson never had notice of it. (Better) With subordination, the phrasing immediately shows that one clause is more important than the other. You’re amplifying the one and diminishing the other. When the more important idea is put into a subordinate clause, the result is what composition teachers call “upside-down subordination”: The deadline passed last Thursday, although Johnson never had notice of it. (Poor) That sentence is really bad. In fact, most sentences with although tacked on the end (as opposed to being up front) have been poorly constructed. One reason legal writers forget subordination is that in-text citations make this sentence structure difficult if not impossible. Lawyers write a series of syntactically monotonous independent clauses interrupted by case names, volume numbers, page numbers, and other bibliographic trivia. Many legal writers are afflicted with hardening of the syntax. Their briefs become a series of main assertions. It’s more difficult to undercut an opponent’s arguments without subordinating them. When we’re editing briefs at LawProse, among the most frequent sentence-level edits we make is to change compound sentences using but as a fulcrum into Although-sentences. The prose starts flowing better almost immediately.

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