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How do you make an argument without actually making an argument? Seasoned lawyers know that strategically chosen words help win over decision-makers and the public. Words may be cheap, but the right ones can buy you a lot. Whether a compelling statement of facts in a brief, or verbal arguments in support of a position, lawyers choose words that carry judgments and can persuade the audience. So we say that our adversaries are vindictive, rather than justice-seeking. They don’t delay, they obstruct. They’re not dogged, they’re plodding. Through these characterizations, advocacy is thinly disguised as description. Choosing words with the greatest persuasive effect is not about increasing clarity. While we have many a straight-laced dictionary and thesaurus devoted to clarity, fewer resources exist for those seeking to slant the discourse. But now the cheat sheet some of us need has arrived. It’s a little book just published by the American Bar Association. Titled Advocacy Words: A Thesaurus, it is the work of William Drennan, a veteran of the publishing industry. While the book is called a thesaurus, it’s more of an extreme thesaurus. Pick from the favorable words listed and you can find a related word with a critical or negative connotation. For example, under the column of favorable terms, there’s the word “theoretical.” Slide your finger across the page to the corresponding negative word, “dubious.” You get the idea: If your opponent in a case refers to a “theoretical” approach, after a quick glance at this book, you can quickly dub it “dubious.” The book contains hundreds of these paired words. Instead of using the favorable term “government,” you can use the negative “regime.” When critiquing someone called a “maverick,” you can deem his behavior “insubordinate.” An “easygoing” person can be turned into “cavalier” or “indifferent.” (More than one alternative is given for many of the words.) It goes the other way too, as the second half of the book reverses the translation — from negative back to favorable. If your opponent is critical of a “backdoor” process, you can refer to it as “informal.” In response to complaints of “artificial” phenomena, you can refer to them with the more positive “man-made.” The book’s preface reminds us that words are the ammunition lawyers need to make their points. Learning advocacy words, Drennan writes, can “help you move others to your point of view.” Of course, if one’s adversary also uses advocacy words — positive against my negative or vice versa — the advantage may be negated. One side says, “The crony was arrogant and incompetent,” and the other counters with, “The trusted adviser was bold but unlucky.” By listing advocacy words, is the book, then, constructive or subversive? There’s no one answer — you decide. The contrast and connotations of words also bring to mind George Orwell’s seminal essay of nearly 60 years ago, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell warned that political speech can convert direct statements about unpleasant subjects into a jumble of clichés intended to disguise both the speaker’s position and an uncomfortable reality. Reliance on ready-made phrases and clichés, and the lessened critical response it entails, said Orwell, is “favorable to political conformity.” In many ways that’s just the purpose of these advocacy words: obtaining consent without bothering with logical persuasion. The book brings to mind a crystallized debate between opposing viewpoints. One can almost hear the talking heads squaring off, locked in a constant inversion of each other’s language: “racket” versus “enterprise,” “hype” versus “educate,” “clique” versus “alliance,” “shabby” versus “economical.” The book does not suggest any neutral choices; rather, it seems to be a perfect companion guide to the discourse in a society fascinated with extremes, one influenced by an adversarial system in which extreme characterizations rule. The book’s main flaw may be that it fails to include many common advocacy words. Here’s one possibility: Opponents of regulatory change may bemoan the “gutting” of the regulations, while others favor this “streamlining.” Every attorney can play this game, and Drennan invites people to send him more sets of “advocacy words” for future editions. Maybe an expanded second edition will include more possibilities. Perhaps it will even include the following advocacy words: “userguide” — “exposé.”
Gunnar Birgisson is an associate at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C.

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