Fancy Nancy and Legal Writing

My four-year-old daughter is a big fan of the Fancy Nancy books.  Fancy Nancy likes fancy parties, fancy clothes, and fancy words.  Fancy Nancy often says things like “I was ecstatic,” and then explains to the reader/listener that “ecstatic is a fancy word for ‘happy.'”  The books are well-written, and FN always uses the “fancy” words correctly.

Like Nancy Clancy, many law students are fond of fancy words.  For example, one of my colleagues gave an assignment a few years ago in which one of the characters got food poisoning at a restaurant.  The students decided that “got” just wasn’t a fancy enough word, so they wrote things like “Jones obtained food poisoning,” “Jones acquired food poisoning,” Jones received food poisoning,” etc.  These all sound ridiculous; the only correct way to write this is, “Jones got food poisoning.”  Everything else just sounds like the writer is trying too hard to sound fancy.

I encountered this recently with a contract law problem I assigned.  One issue was whether the Western Illinois Automotive Technician Institute (WIATI) is a merchant under the Illinois Commerical Code.  Instead of stating the issue as “whether WIATI is a merchant under the I.C.C.,” students found all sorts of ways to fancy it up:  whether WIATI “falls within the defininition of merchant found in the I.C.C.,” whether WIATI “is likely to be found to qualify as a merchant for purposes of the I.C.C.,” whether WIATI “is likely to be found to be a merchant under the I.C.C.,” and so on.  This certainly isn’t the worst thing you can possibly write, but it’s an example of larger problems I see quite often in student writing:  using fifteen words when eight will do, and always trying to fancy up “boring” words like “is.”  Most of the time, I just want my students to say what they mean, and say it as succinctly as possible.

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