Clarity versus accuracy... and lawyers & gibberish

The Nobel-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr said (and I paraphrase) that we can be accurate or clear, but not both. But is that so?

With numbers, yes. "Sales are £18,625,983." It’s accurate… but not clear. The extra digits don’t help, they hinder. So try this: “Sales are £18.6m”. Clearer, albeit less accurate. No worries, for we’re trading precision for clarity. As Darrell Huff says in his classic book How to Lie with Statistics: “A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference.” Neat. But take care when rounding, for it can cause grief - click here for more on this. 

But what of words? If I tell bosses I need an FX-Protocol Upgrade for my FSB-12-DCDS, eyes glaze. Confusion sets in. So try this: “I need to upgrade my client database”. Much clearer. As for being less accurate, ‘roughly accurate’ is close enough... isn't it?

Don’t you know that it’s different for lawyers? Surely in legal contracts, accuracy takes precedence - and clarity plays second fiddle. Which might be why I often hear people say: “My report was clear and concise, but Group Legal made it gibberish and long”.

And yes, I sympathise. As I mentioned in a previous email update, I gave one day’s training at a client – and its internal Legal Team sent me a 28-page Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Twenty-eight pages!?!? (A week later it sent me an e-Christmas card as a sign of its commitment to the environment. Not so much an e-card, but an i-card… an ironic card.)

Yet one month later, another client sent me an NDA. Just four clear, short sentences. And, I presume, legally tight, given that the client was (cue punchline)... a law firm. 

Two possible conclusions from this. (1) The law firm was exceptional; rare amongst law firms, it could be clear and accurate. Or (2): lawyers can be clear and accurate... they just choose not to be. Maybe they deliberately confuse, for it helps justify their existence to bosses (if it’s an internal Legal Team) or pad a bill (if it’s a law firm doing work for a client). But if there is no boss to impress or bill to pad, they keep it simple.

Which is right? (1) or (2)? I don't know. The jury is out. Any evidence gratefully received.

Don’t we all want the same thing? To be honest, it's not wrong for lawyers to seek precision. I seek it too. In fact, it bugs me when people use particular words or punctuation incorrectly - and I'm not talking about phrases such as less than versus fewer than. Even if people use them incorrectly, we still grasp the meaning. Rather, I refer to stuff that when used incorrectly, changes meaning. Such as these:

Only, again, just: take care where you put only. “Email me only to clarify” is different to: “Email only me to clarify”. And different to: “Only email me to clarify”. Also, rearrange this: “I again want to just throttle my boss”.

Frequent (plus regular, often, urgent): avoid, unless a general impression is sufficient. “Write regularly,” but is that once a day? Or once a year? Halley’s comet comes regularly – once every 76 years.

Used: 'Yoozd' or 'yoost'? Compare: “Six-month baby used to smuggle drugs”, and: “I used to smuggle drugs”. I’m guilty, the baby isn’t.

Commas: for years, I worked at a place where the Legal Team wrote contracts with no commas. They’d systematically remove them. A sort of ‘commacide’. Yet commas change meaning – I once saw a sign that said: “Put the kettle on Paul”. A strange hat for Paul, no? Also, study this: “Lawyers, who remove commas, should be shot”. With commas, the sentence assumes all lawyers commit commacide, and exhorts mass lawyercide. Remove the commas, and it exhorts selective lawyercide – just lawyers that commit commacide...

On that note, let's move on. Time for the final gratuitous fun bit. And it's legal bumf.

Logical advice gets you in a whirl: earlier this year, I received lots of emails about GDPR, and one was stand-out bad. And I reckon it was written by a lawyer. Quickly skim the following – the first sentence is OK, but it gets comically bad after that. 

“As you may be aware, the General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679) ("GDPR") will apply to all EU Member States from 25 May 2018. Under the GDPR, where a data controller engages a data processor, it must ensure it has a contract with that data processor and that the data processor undertakes certain obligations in respect of its processing of that personal data.

We (as defined in Annex 1) have reviewed our arrangements with you (as defined in Annex 1) and understand that there is no applicable controller to processor arrangement in place between us as we have not instructed you to undertake any processing of personal data on our behalf.

If we do not hear from you to the contrary within the next 28 days we will assume that, by continuing to deal with us, you agree with our assessment in Appendix 1 and that you are not processing any personal data, either as our data processor or as a data controller.”


Phew. Clear? No. Accurate? Who cares... when reading it, I lost the will to live.


PS late edit, two years after the above email was sent out and read (opened?) by 3,500 people: I was gutted that not a single person emailed me back and commented on the lyrical references in all the sub-headings. They're from a song, and I was really proud of how I'd shoehorned them into the email. Ah well. 


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