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Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Most Important Sentence in Simon Lazarus's YLS Memo

Leaving aside all the other issues, there is surely one point in Simon Lazarus's memo, noted by Rick below, on which all right-thinking people can agree: "'Inflection point' is an overused cliché."

It is true that academics are not the most thoughtful or independent thinkers or writers. And it seems increasingly true that apart from all the other trend-chasing they may engage in, they--and their youthful editors--are caught in a moment (not an inflection point!) in which both academic and general-audience writing is infected by a hybrid of what I think of as social-media bumper-sticker phrases (see, e.g., virtually every current political and cultural debate) and bad grad-school-dropout essay style. (Try comparing the current movie reviews in the Times to those five or fifteen years ago--and read the staff bios. This is a case in which the hiring crisis in the humanities is a lose-lose scenario.) But the frequency of use of a phrase like "inflection point" serves as a nice illustration of how bad things have gotten. Here, based on a search of Westlaw's law review database, is a look at the number of times the phrase has been used per year in the past decade:

2021 to date: 114

2020: 139

2019: 136

2018: 93

2017: 80

2016: 79

2015: 64

2014: 56

2013: 49

2012: 31

Going further back at greater intervals, the numbers are 21 times in 2008, five times in 2005, six times in 2000, a whopping twice in 1995, and a total of seven times in a search of all uses of the phrase before 1995. The numbers are actually worse than that. The further back one goes, the more likely it is that when an article contains the phrase "inflection point," it is using it accurately as a term of art in mathematics, or quoting it as business jargon. That is far less true today.

I am sure that 1995 also had its trendy phrases. (And that I used them.) And I don't think this kind of trend--not so much an example of academic jargon, I think, but more an example of the increasing jargonization of normal language, and of its seeping from the Internet into every other corner of the language--is unique to the legal academy as opposed to other sectors. It might even be less common in legal academic writing, although one might think otherwise given the circumstances of its production: As an academic discipline, law is more undisciplined than most and its gatekeepers less qualified and, because they are younger, more subject to capture by linguistic fads. Still, given how often lawyers or legal academics trumpet the lawyer's ability to speak and write clearly and succinctly, we ought to be especially vigilant against this sort of trend. Evidently, we are not. 

It also strikes me--and this too is true of many of the phrases appearing in both online and offline discourse, including in the law journals--that most of the time it is used inaccurately even as a turn of phrase. In its non-mathematical sense--one closely related to its mathematical meaning--an inflection point is a moment of dramatic and fundamental change, one in which previous assumptions no longer apply. Most of the time, "inflection point" is merely used to mean something more like an "important moment." And a good deal of the time, its use is less descriptive and more rhetorically assertive and strategic than that. It is used to mean something like, "This is a moment that I want you to believe is urgent." Since the evidence given to support the assertion is often lacking, it is fair to say that its invocation in such cases meets Harry Frankfurt's definition of "bullshit:" it is intended to persuade without much regard for whether it is true or false in fact. (Why undertake this draconian legal change, despite the unanswered questions about consequences or the existence of known costs and risks or the presence of contrary precedent? Because we are at an inflection point.) Apart from its political uses--and a good deal of legal academic writing is intended to look as if it is politically engaged or make the writer feel he or she is politically engaged--I suspect that it fills a self-serving function supplemental to novelty claims, spurious or otherwise. Why publish this article, or publish it in a top journal--even though, strictly speaking, it is not novel? Because we are at an inflection point.

I don't much care for writing prescriptions. But if I were addressing law review editors, my advice to them would be straightforward: Redline every use of every phrase of this sort. (I'm sure many current instant-cliches will occur to you.) Ask the writer whether it is actually true (and demand support on that point) and actually needed. Encourage him or her to rewrite the sentence in plain English. (At a minimum, this would have the benefit of making many articles feel less important and exciting.) Then go after the older cliches as well. 

But the real target of any advice should be the professors, who are older and better situated to withstand the linguistic temptation to be timely and up-to-date. They won't be anyway. We all grow old and, if we are fortunate, unfashionable. So they may as well shoot for being clear and timeless.   




Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 14, 2021 at 01:24 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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