LawProse Lesson #265: Intelligibility vs. Credibility.

LawProse Lesson #265: Intelligibility vs. Credibility.

People often ask why it matters what precise word you use (militate vs. mitigate, or masterly vs. masterful) as long as readers or listeners understand what you mean. If there’s no real confusion, they say, why should we get persnickety about words? This view is premised on the pragmatic idea that language is all about communication, and that if the basic message gets through, then the mission has been accomplished. But it fails to account for all that you communicate every time you use language. One thing you communicate whenever you write or speak is information about you: how well educated you are, how careful you are, and how clear-headed you are. You might point to a house and say, “You see that there house over yonder?” Listeners will wonder where you’re from and how much formal education you’ve had. They’re sizing you up and forming opinions about how much stock to put in what you’re trying to say. They’re thinking about you, not your message. Or you might write, “Their leaving they’re house next week, after the sell.” Again, educated readers will be sizing you up—negatively. Although the message is completely decipherable, it comes with lots of informational static. Right words are like the right notes in music: they sound right. Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: the tune may be discernible, but if those wrong notes occur with any frequency, people will wonder how the musician ever thought it wise to perform in public. Who wants to listen to that? Given that law is a literary profession, and lawyers are professional writers, it’s wise to focus on your credibility with a wide readership—not just on the much lower standard of whether your message is above the threshold of intelligibility. Obvious, you say? I’d have thought so, too. But many people naively argue that if the message is relatively clear, the form of words doesn’t matter. It might not matter to the message’s intelligibility. But the better standard is credibility. The more you have, the more effectively you’ll communicate.

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