October 13, 2014

Is it Possible to Use Too Many Adverbs in Court

Do you knowingly or unwittingly use an abundance of adverbs in your legal briefs and prepared statements for trial? According to the Wall Street Journal last week, you likely do. Wall Street Journal reporter Jacob Gershman, in a clever front-page article titled “Why Adverbs, Maligned by Many, Flourish in the American Legal System,” (October 8, 2014) points out that though many writers of prose eschew the adverb, it is ubiquitous in courtrooms around the country.

Why would a part of speech the Wall Street Journal describes as “the grammatical equivalent of cheap cologne” nonetheless play a role in many court cases? Take by way of explanation a trial lawyer representing the victim of a shooting in a bar. The plaintiff’s lawyer could stand before the jury and tell them that the defendant fired a gun in the bar, or she could tell the jury that the defendantindiscriminately fired a gun in the bar. Which version comes across as a stronger statement about the triggerman’s actions?

When we are told that someone did something maliciously or recklessly or intentionally, we have a more vivid impression of how something happened and that impacts how we will react to it. In the example above, hearing the gunman was indiscriminant in firing the gun will likely lead the jury to feel the defendant does not have a high regard for human life, which may be important in building the plaintiff’s case against him.

Apparently even the adverb-opposed see the importance of adverbs in court. The Wall Street Journal article cites an appeals court judge in Utah who wrote an essay last year explaining that though he detested the use of adverbs for many years, he now appreciates them as a “key to nuance.” The article points out that even the U.S. Supreme Court has focused on adverbs in cases: In the 2009 case, Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., the high court’s decision hinged on the word knowingly in a relevant government statute.

The article also references a recent case involving the Internal Revenue Service freezing the assets of a former Pennsylvania state senator based on a statute in tax law that allows the government to freeze assets when someone is working quickly to hide his or her wealth. The court in this case found that the senator had not been working quickly to hide his wealth, but rather, he had done so over the course of several years, and that the statute did not apply.

Regardless, strong adverbs should only be one of many tools a trial lawyer uses in court to create an argument that will sway the judge or jury. Effective speech is not about picking the most extreme words or the most dramatic but the most apt. It may sway a jury more to say someone was “heartbroken” rather than “sad,” so when the situation warrants it, by all means use “heartbroken.” Depending on the circumstances though, “sad” may be more appropriate. For example, a person may be sad that the newspaper wasn’t on his doorstep as expected, but “heartbroken?” Such overstatement will likely provoke a “give me a break” response from your listeners and diminish your credibility.

The key is to be cognizant of your word choices. Speak vividly and capture the imagination of your audience. Your word choices should enhance your argument, not detract from it. So feel free to include adverbs where they are warranted and exclude them where they are not. After all, consciously using the right words to make your points may make all the difference to your case.