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I. A “Good Vocabulary” Means More Than Just Big Words
A. A “Vocabulary” Comes In 4 Kinds
A “vocabulary” involves 4 kinds of vocabulary: aural vocabulary (the words you hear); reading vocabulary (the words you read); spoken vocabulary (the words you speak); and writing vocabulary (the words you write). The four vocabularies overlap, but no two of them are the same.
For example, a word you read in a book or hear someone say might never appear in your own speech or writing; it requires much less effort to understand a spoken or written word than the effort needed to use that same word effectively.
Apparently, you must use a word in context around 40 times before you can achieve mastery of that word and its meaning. Although speaking vocabulary and writing vocabulary are both important in the law, I will discuss mainly writing vocabulary, given the rise in importance of written persuasion in law (see generally, Troy Simpson, Win More Cases: The Lawyer's Toolkit (2008)).
B. A “Good” Vocabulary Is Both Broad and Deep
A “good” vocabulary involves both breadth and depth. Breadth of vocabulary refers to the number of words you know. It is hard to measure the number of words a person knows. The number of “words” in the English language is itself difficult to measure. Estimates vary because of differences in what is counted as a single word. For example, do we count derivatives? Do we count compounds? Do we include technical terms? What about slang, archaic words, and foreign derivatives?
According to lexicographer Dr Frank Horace Vizetelly, English has around 1 million words. The average person uses only a few thousand of these words. But lawyers have a speaking acquaintance with around 23,000 words (compared to 5,000 words for other occupations such as mechanics and artists and 8,000 to 10,000 for “educated” people).
Depth of vocabulary refers to how well you know the meanings of words in your vocabulary. Most words have more than one meaning. The more often a word is used, in general, the greater its number of meanings and the easier it is to confuse that word's meaning.
In addition, many words in common use have infrequently used meanings. Other words in general use have a particular and quite special meaning in law, science, and other branches of knowledge: It is unwise, therefore, to equate a word with a single meaning and wrong to equate a “good vocabulary” with quantity without quality. In “Means of Vocabulary Development” (1963) 6(2) Journal of Developmental Reading 140, Frank Heys Jr writes:
- “Size of vocabulary is akin to speed in reading: it is part of the solution of the problem, but it is not the entire solution. Indeed, as with speed in reading, our concern over the problem may have caused us to exaggerate the importance of the number of words a student knows. Size is important — yes; but of equal importance, possibly of greater importance, is the accurate use of words.”
It is particularly important for lawyers to know the different meanings of words. For example, words such as “damage”, “property”, “fraud”, “intent”, and “malice” have a lot of potential meanings. As a result, a lawyer must know the subtly different meanings of words in law.
A really good vocabulary also involves knowing something of a word’s sound, history, and associations; the use that has been made of the word by great writers; the utility and value of certain words; and the ability to use the most apt word in the most apt place.
II. A Good Vocabulary Correlates With Success In General
The link between a good vocabulary and success is fairly clear. According to Johnson O’Connor’s 1934 famous article in the Atlantic Monthly:
- “An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this country more often than any other single characteristic we have been able to isolate and measure.”
Similarly, R Bowker in the English Vocabulary Manual (1981) says:
- “English vocabulary level has been shown to be strongly related to educational success. In addition, it is related to the level of occupation attained. It is highly correlated with measures of reading ability and intelligence.”
C Rexford Davis says, in the introduction to his book, Vocabulary Building:
- “[T]he possession of a large vocabulary does not in itself guarantee success. But without a large vocabulary outstanding success seldom occurs.”
If a good vocabulary correlates with success generally, then the correlation must be even stronger for lawyers. After all, words are lawyers' principal tools. And the written word is the most important of all:
- “[B]y far the greatest proportion of the lawyer’s product, the commodity in which he deals, the thing which he sells, if you please, is the written word … To that end the lawyer should have a good vocabulary, not necessarily a large vocabulary, but a discriminating knowledge of the utility and value of a sufficient number of words — preferably simple words — which will enable him to use the right word in the right place and the most effective word for the place.” (Harold G Pickering, “On Learning to Write: Suggestions for Study and Practice” in George Rossman (ed), Advocacy and The King’s English (1960) 826, 827–8.)
III. A Good Vocabulary Correlates With Lawyers' Success In Particular
A. Lawyers Use Their Vocabulary For A Special Purpose: To Persuade
People use their vocabularies for several purposes. Most obviously, you use words to receive information and to understand information (aural vocabulary and reading vocabulary) and to convey information so that you are understood (speech vocabulary and writing vocabulary).
But lawyers also use vocabulary for a special purpose — that is, to persuade; to make someone do something.
How, then, does a good writing vocabulary affect the process of written persuasion?
B. A Good Vocabulary Persuades In 3 Main Ways
A lot has been written about persuasion techniques, in diverse fields. But, let us look at just the 3 classical rhetorical devices that Aristotle made famous — logos, pathos, and ethos — to see how a good vocabulary can help lawyers to persuade.
1. A Good Vocabulary Persuades Through Logos
Logos is the process of persuading through substance and logical argument. Clarity of language is essential to persuading through logos. If you do not use clear words, then your audience will not understand the logic of your argument. And a good vocabulary — one that is both broad and deep — is essential to clarity.
Edwin Abbott says in his classic work, How to Write Clearly (1883), that “Verbosity is cured not by a small, but by a large vocabulary”; if you have a large stock of words, you can choose the most effective word. When Ronald J Waicukauski et al ask in The Winning Argument, “What is the key to effective word choice? How do you get to the point where it comes naturally and regularly?”, they answer: “Improved vocabulary is the first.”
In Writing At Work (2007), Neil James shows, precisely, how a broad and deep vocabulary can help you write clearly without losing precision. James gives two useful tests when choosing your words: first, look among your stock of words for the words that convey your meaning most exactly (this will narrow the field); second, pick the shortest of the alternatives. The word that passes both tests will give your language power and precision.
A good vocabulary also helps you persuade through logos in other, even more important, ways. Logos encompasses most of the persuasive arguments lawyers routinely use, such as arguments based on text, intent, policy, and precedent. In these tasks, a good vocabulary plays an important role.
For example, when using digests, indexes, and databases to research the law, a broad vocabulary helps you think of as many alternative words as possible that describe or relate to your research topic. Also, a deep vocabulary helps you interpret and understand the words used in statutes and precedents by alerting you to subtle differences in meaning.
2. A Good Vocabulary Persuades Through Pathos
Pathos is persuasion through emotion. You can persuade through emotion in two main ways. You can please the reader by using language that is correct, clear, concise, concrete, and coherent (see How To Write Well). Well-written prose makes readers happy, but a poorly written document forces the reader to struggle through the document. For example, in relation to the fifth C, “coherence”, when vocabulary is coherent, a message flows seamlessly from one point to the next, avoiding abrupt delivery.
But persuading through emotion involves more than just pleasing your reader with a nice writing style. By sensitising you to careful uses of emotive language, a broad and deep vocabulary directly enhances your ability to persuade. You want to evoke an emotional response in the judge or other decision-maker favourable to your client’s plight, such as sympathy for your client’s circumstances or anger towards an opponent’s behaviour. Here, your vocabulary can make a big difference.
Byran A Garner gives some examples on when you might use charged verbs like “renege” and “dishonor” (Bryan A Garner, “The Language of Appellate Advocacy” in Priscilla Anne Schwab (ed), Appellate Practice Manual (1992) 188, 192). The key is not to pick the most extreme word available but to select the most apt word in the most apt place. Ronald J Waicukauski et al in The Winning Argument (2001) give an example (127):
- “Depending on the circumstances, ‘sad’ may be a more apt word than ‘devastated’ … Using strong words inappropriately will amount to overstatement, causing your listener to respond, ‘Give me a break.’ On the other hand, a person whose child was killed by a drunk driver is ‘devastated’ — a far more apt and evocative word than ‘sad.’”
3. A Good Vocabulary Persuades Through Ethos
Ethos is establishing and maintaining credibility in the eyes of the audience. “Credibility” has several elements, including professionalism and intelligence. “Intelligence”, in turn, involves several traits, which include paying attention to detail and articulating your argument clearly.
A good vocabulary can boost your credibility in several ways. A good vocabulary gives you distinction. A good vocabulary also helps you pay attention to detail. For example, studying vocabulary can improve your spelling. And good spelling is important for lawyers since bad spelling makes the judge question the level of overall trust that can be placed in the advocate's arguments.
As well as affecting the mood of the reader, an overstated vocabulary can affect your believability. Credibility is not enhanced by overstated vocabulary such as calling every position of an opponent as “utterly fallacious” and “completely without support in law or in fact”, to use Garner's examples of overstatements. And overstatements damage your credibility not only in the immediate case but also future cases too.
By contrast, some psychological research suggests that a qualified vocabulary — words such as “probably” and “possibly” — actually persuade people who know your area of expertise (for example, judges) more than unqualified statements (though the reverse may apply to people who do not know your area of expertise (such as jurors)).
IV. Improve Your Vocabulary
Improving your vocabulary can come from incidental learning from context, direct learning, or a combination of these. The best incidental learning comes from reading good books and associating with others who have a good spoken vocabulary and written vocabulary. Direct techniques include looking in a dictionary for unfamiliar words. Another technique is to use a notebook to record the definitions of new words and review your notebook whenever you get some spare time — at lunch, on the train to work, or whenever. You should try to learn at least one new word a day.
The quickest and easiest form of direct learning these days is through vocabulary-building software. I use a popular vocabulary tool called Ultimate Vocabulary. By using Ultimate Vocabulary, I can create my own custom vocabulary word lists where I collect all the words that are new to me. I learn the new word through links to definitions, synonyms, antonyms, word flash cards, and a database of example sentences for each word I am learning, so that I can see the word in context. I then test myself with several inbuilt tests — a definition test, word test, synonym test, antonym test, word recall test, and spelling test — until I have mastered the new word. My favorite part of Ultimate Vocabulary is Word Messenger. When I turn on Word Messenger, the words I am learning will pop-up on my PC throughout the day to remind me of the new words in my expanded vocabulary.
A broad and deep vocabulary can help you persuade by making clear the logic of your arguments and by helping you find and interpret the sources of information on which you base those arguments. Carefully chosen words that follow the “five Cs” of correctness, clarity, conciseness, concreteness, and coherence, can please the reader. Choice words can also evoke positive feelings in the reader toward your client and your cause. A good vocabulary enhances your credibility by helping you eliminate basic errors, such as spelling mistakes, and by distinguishing you as intelligent, professional, and articulate. Overall, if you can command words, then you can influence people. And if you can influence people, then you can influence outcomes.
*Denise and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary because we are happy to endorse that software.