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Clearly, Using Intensifiers Is Very Bad--Or Is It?

Lance N. Long, University of Oregon
William F. Chistensen

Abstract

Although scholars have generally found that overusing intensifiers (words such as “clearly,” “obviously,” and “very”) negatively affects the persuasiveness or credibility of a legal argument, no one has studied actual appellate briefs to determine whether there is a relationship between intensifier use and the outcome of an appeal. This article describes two empirical studies of appellate briefs, which show that the frequent use of intensifiers in appellate briefs (particularly by an appellant) is usually associated with a statistically significant increase in adverse outcomes for an “offending” party. But--and this was an unexpected result--if an appellate opinion uses a high rate of intensifiers, an appellant’s brief written for that appeal that also uses a high rate of intensifiers is associated with a statistically significant increase in favorable outcomes. Additionally, when a dissenting opinion is written, judges use significantly more intensifiers in both the majority and dissenting opinions. In other words, as things become less clear, judges tend to use “clearly,” and “obviously” more often.

These results could be interpreted several ways. It could be that overusing intensifiers actually renders a brief suspect and subject to increased skepticism by appellate court judges. Alternatively, it could be that the overuse of intensifiers is accompanied by violations of other writing conventions that further affect the credibility of the brief. Or, it could simply be that appellants or appellees with difficult arguments (arguments that they believe they are likely to lose) tend to lapse into an intensifier-rich mode of writing in an attempt to bolster the perceived weaknesses of an argument. All of these factors may combine to produce the result. Of course, since no causal relationship is shown, it could be a yet unidentified factor. At the very least, the studies suggest the need for further research and a fruitful source of data for performing such research.

Suggested Citation

Lance N. Long and William F. Chistensen. 2008. "Clearly, Using Intensifiers Is Very Bad--Or Is It?" ExpressO
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/lance_long/1

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