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December 26, 2012

This is a sentence.

by contributor
words

wordsIn his slim treatise How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, law professor, author, and writing aficionado Stanley Fish argues that good sentences, above all else, make good writing. Fish’s book is really more a long love letter to the written word than a short treatise on usage. But the letter’s instructional force is still apparent.

Fish plays matchmaker by pairing his readers with interesting examples and exercises that, if practiced, provide great instruction on the building blocks of a sentence. To Fish, words alone do not make good writing. In fact, the lone “word” is really just an annoying and squeaky third wheel on a bad date. A sentence, by contrast, is a romantic relationship between otherwise aimless words. “Sentences are little worlds made cunningly.”

The most basic logical structure for most sentences is X does Y to Z: “Jack hit the ball.” By building on this elementary X-Y-Z form, a writer can order sentence components in terms of causality, temporality, or precedence (the “subordinating style,” for example) to bring depth to an otherwise shallow, uninteresting proposition.

Pretty soon, Jack doesn’t just hit the ball, but rather, “After tapping his warn old shoe with his bat twice — as he always had — Jack, a man too old for a game that was too young, stepped into the batter’s box for the last time, reached down deep, and finding enough energy once more, hit the ball, which had left the park even before it left his bat.” (My feeble example, not Fish’s.)

The takeaway from Fish is this: learn and consistently apply proper sentence forms and good writing will follow. Or, as Fish puts it, “forms shall set you free.” Lawyers (or what I like to call “Legal Writing Advocates”) have at their disposal a ready-made form that, if applied correctly and steadily, shall set you free: IRAC.

Admittedly, IRAC — Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion — is a form with broader application than the simpler sentence; IRAC is a structure used to order an entire legal argument, whereas a sentence is a logical form used to order a limited proposition. But the point translates: without form, without IRAC, a legal brief is merely a hodgepodge of ideas that lack persuasive or explanative force. A legal argument that does not follow IRAC is simply a losing contestant playing the dating game.

For the socially awkward, Fish inspires the hermetic lawyer-writer to fall in love again with formulaic writing, such as IRAC, and hit the dating scene. So stick to the basics in your brief writing, commit again and again to following IRAC, and better writing will follow.

Young Lawyers Committee — The Voice of New/Young Lawyers

The Washington Young Lawyers Committee (WYLC) is the vehicle for new attorneys and law students to get involved with the Washington State Bar Association.

Read more from the YLC.  Learn more about the YLC.

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