“Get to the Point” has previously preached that specificity enhances credibility. In fact, I’m working on a cross-stitch with this aphorism to place on the office wall. Using an unsupported superlative flouts this rule.
Ugly, Uglier, Ugliest
A superlative is used to express the highest degree of a quality. “Magnificent”, “outstanding” and “unrivaled” are superlatives. And typically so are words ending in “est.” You know, words like “healthiest” and “best.”
On December 4, 2015, Dr. Harold Bornstein signed off on a letter stating, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” On January 12, 2017, President Obama called Joe Biden “the best vice president America has ever had.”
Late-night comic Stephen Colbert joked, “In your face, Franklin Pierce vice president William Rufus DeVane King.” And, hey, what about Teddy Roosevelt (refuting both superlative statements)?
The real tip-off to a problem with superlative pronouncements like these is the word “ever.” Perhaps a scientist or historian or expert witness can sometimes state that something is the most fill-in-the-blank that ever existed. Those occasions are rare. Generally, careful communicators hedge their bets when describing extreme conditions — and avoid conclusions there is no way to substantiate. That an unrecorded historic condition could be definitively compared with anything else is unlikely.
Are You a Careful Communicator?
“A lawyer must also act with … zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf,” says the comment to ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3. But too much zeal can raise the eyebrows of a judge or jury.
Oh, yes, you know that witness was the most egregious liar ever. The plaintiff’s injuries were the worst ever sustained in an accident of this sort. The defendant’s actions showed the highest level of care ever exhibited.
Wait a minute — ever?
Pretty, Prettier, Prettiest
The lawyer’s job is to persuade. Conservative statements that accurately reflect the evidence without exaggeration are most likely to earn the respect of the person receiving your communication. Be cautious about extreme praise or condemnation, and avoid “ever” and “never” unless the claim can be objectively verified.
Catch up on past “Get to the Point” columns here.
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