This post discusses two techniques for creating memorable, persuasive prose, which I discovered in Ward Farnsworth’s forthcoming book, Classical English Style. By the way, how’re you doing at spotting Saxon and Romance words? Here’s Quiz 3: name the Saxon alternative for each Romance verb: cogitate, emancipate, imbibe, inundate, masticate (answers at the end).
In persuasive writing, some judges prefer Saxon words:
- “[The best advocates] will master the short Saxon word that pierces the mind like a spear . . . .” Hon. Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court.1
- “A healthy respect for the robust Anglo-Saxon appeals more than does the Latin . . . .” Hon. Wiley B. Rutledge, U.S. Supreme Court.2
We can take advantage of this preference with two persuasive-writing techniques that combine Saxon words with Romance words—relying on differences in tone, formality, and force. The two techniques are the Saxon Restatement and the Saxon Finish.
The Saxon Restatement. With this technique, you state a proposition using primarily Romance words and then restate it using primarily Saxon words (or vice versa). Abraham Lincoln did it in his House Divided speech:
- “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall.”3
Lincoln essentially says the same thing twice: with Romance words (union, dissolve) and then Saxon (house, fall). He names lofty concepts and then brings them down to earth, creating a forceful, memorable couplet.
Winston Churchill did something similar in a famous speech:
- “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.”4
Here Churchill reversed the pattern, starting with Saxon (blood, toil, tears, sweat) and reiterating with Romance (ordeal, grievous). The real, physical sacrifices are named and then connected to the abstract concepts.
I’ve created examples for modern legal writing by modifying text from appellate briefs:
- The jury justifiably relied on the photographic evidence because images are unable to prevaricate; pictures cannot lie.
Here, image, able, and prevaricate are Romance; cannot and lie are Saxon. The lofty legal concepts are made concrete. Another example:
- Albrecht’s only obligation under the order was to remunerate the seller for the vehicle she purchased—to pay for what she bought.
The Saxon Finish. With this technique, you state a single proposition, but after beginning with Romance words, you finish with Saxon. Oliver Wendell Holmes did it well. Here are two examples from his dissenting opinions—the Saxon Finish is italicized:
- “If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”5
- “[I]f there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”6
Holmes builds up to a big idea with Romance words; then he states the idea with Saxon words. The result is a forceful wrap-up.
I’ll give it a try:
- Petrolco asks this court to affirm the trial court’s interpretation of section 216(b) so that punitive damages are grafted onto the text—an interpretation that produces an entirely different class of remedy from mere legislative silence. Petrolco asks too much.
- The drug would be located in the deceased’s system only under illicit conditions because having the drug is against the law.
Granted, these techniques are used most often used in speech. Still, you should add them to your toolkit for persuasive legal writing. They constitute sophisticated rhetorical devices—they are tools of plain English.
Quiz answers: cogitate/think, emancipate/free, imbibe/drink, inundate/flood, masticate/chew
____ Collected in Bryan A. Garner, Judges on Effective Writing: The Importance of Plain Language, Mich. B.J. 44–45 (Feb. 2005).
 Quoted in Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Style (forthcoming).
 Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 673 (1925) (Holmes, J., dissenting).
 United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644, 655 (1929) (Holmes, J., dissenting).