You can’t be persuasive if your message is confusing. Whether you’re arguing a motion or giving an interview on a political issue, clarity is what counts. A qualifier changes the meaning of another word or phrase. Too many qualifiers convolute your message.
How Legal Argument Is Like Politics
A recent news story discussed a drop in crime reporting within the Latino community. The police chief expressed concern that undocumented immigrants were increasingly reluctant to report crimes; they feared, he speculated, that a heightened presence would result in deportation.
A political pundit responded:
“It would be very difficult to argue that the decrease in reports from the Latino community is not simply the result of fewer assaults being committed.”
Let’s parse this sentence.
- “It would be difficult to argue” suggests that the premise is not true.
- “the decrease … is not … the result of fewer assaults” is the premise.
Of course, the law enforcement official argued just that: Fewer assaults is not the reason for the reporting decrease. But the pundit is saying that fewer assaults is the reason for the decrease. The problem is that it took 10 minutes to dissect the pundit’s sentence.
The speaker starts talking about “to argue” without clarifying if the argument is for or against the premise. But the speaker qualifies “argue” by saying it is “difficult to argue.” Then, there’s that “not,” which reverses the meaning again.
Too Many Parts
Look at the extra stuff in the pundit’s sentence. What do the words “being committed” add? “Very” and “simply” are also superfluous.
The best sentence structure is subject/verb/object. There are many ways the speaker could have stated the meaning more clearly:
Fewer reports result from fewer assaults.
Or, if you want to add a bit of condescension:
The more likely explanation is that fewer reports result from fewer assaults.
You could reverse the order:
Fewer assaults result in fewer reports.
The more parts you add to your sentence, the more opaque your meaning is to your readers.
Don’t make your readers have to diagram a sentence to figure out what it means. They are likely to just assume what it means (rightly or wrongly) or ignore it. An argument for the positive position is easier to understand than an argument phrased as a negative. Keep sentence structure simple. When you see a long sentence, figure out how to revise it into short ones.