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Good lawyers know that effective advocacy requires more than just choosing the right words; it also requires choosing the right word order. The formal term for this choice is “syntax.” But perhaps a better description comes from a 1976 essay by Joan Didion called “Why I Write.”

In it, Didion draws a helpful parallel between the arrangement of a photograph and the arrangement of a sentence. “To shift the structure of a sentence,” she notes, “alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of the camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.” Didion refers to this phenomenon as grammar’s “infinite power,” a phrase that captures just how transformative word order can be.


AALS is the copyright holder of the edition of the Journal in which the article first appeared. The contents of these publications may not be reproduced or distributed, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the AALS. This article was originally published as Barry, Patrick. "The Infinite Power of Grammar." Journal of Legal Education 67, no. 3 (2018): 853-859.