Winning your case - Is it all in the words you choose?

For those of you who have read our columns before, it will hopefully come as no surprise to learn that these are columns about the law and humor. It is thus somewhat peculiar to realize that never, in the 25-year plus history of this column, has anyone ever attempted to take a lesson from one genre and apply it to the other.

True, we have recognized that, sometimes, the law is humorous. We have also noted that, at times, humor must follow its own rules and laws. Yet never has any stalwart member of this renowned Levison Group taken a moment to determine if there are any precepts from the law that can guide one in humor, or any humor analysis that can help one in the practice of law. It is now time.

For years I have been aware of the evolving school of academic investigation which has been studying what makes things funny. I recently learned that at least one conclusion, apparently, is that "hard sounds" such as the "k" sound in clock are funny, whereas easy listening sounds, such as the "ee" in "breezy" are not. Kooky, isn't it? A longtime New Yorker staff writer, Tad Friend, for example, penned an article on what makes us laugh in which he claimed that "Hard consonant sounds, especially K sounds, which include C [and] Qu . . . tend to make words sound funnier." Similarly, the great Neil Simon waxed on the subject in his iconoclastic work "The Sunshine Boys," noting: "Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka Seltzer' you get a laugh . . . Words with 'k' in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland . . . Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny."

Wikipedia, the Internet's repository of virtually everything, has an entry for "intrinsically funny words", and identifies consonants which it calls "plosives" as the funniest sounds in the English language: p, b, t, d, g, and k. It then goes on to cite cultural references for the theory that certain words or sounds are automatically funny, pointing for support to such sources as Joe Piscopo in a "Star Trek, Next Generation" episode (playing a comedian in the future who passes along the secret that "k is funny" to the android known as Data), a "Simpsons" episode in which Homer goes to clown college and learns similar secrets from the master Krusty the Clown, and the classic George Carlin routine in which he designated kumquats, garbanzos, succotash and guacamole as "too funny to eat."

So, if certain letters are funny, are certain words or letters persuasive? It dawned on me that a true column of comedy and law needed to track this possibility. Thus, the motivating question: Is it possible that, when all is said and done, the way to win an argument or negotiation is to simply employ the correct linguistics?

Some research appears to indicate I may be on to something here. The Apostle Paul seemed to recognize the existence of verbalistic power tools. In I Cor. 2:1-5 he identifies "persuasive words of wisdom," only to disavow their usage. More recently, in their treatise, "Persuasion Across Genres: A Linguistic Approach" authors Helena Halmari and Tuija Virtanen devote an enormous amount of scientific, literary, and academic energy to the task of identifying exactly what makes certain words inherently persuasive, concluding that to some degree context and expectation play into the final determination. Patricia J. Parsons in her ebook "Beyond Persuasion: The Healthcare Manager's Guide to Strategic Communication" claims to have determined that obscure statistics of interest are persuasive, the key being to utilize numerical claims that are not expected and are thus startling, but which are quick and to the point. In addition, and perhaps more to the point, Noell C. Nelson has proclaimed in "Lawdragon," that "it is surprisingly easy to make deliberate word and word-structure choices that better focus witness responses and juror thinking to your advantage," and identifies the use of influencing adjectives, negative versus positive word connotations, the use of the present tense to increase a feeling of relationship, and the age-old rhetorical question as the tools of the trade.

Perhaps most astonishingly, however, is the conclusions reported in "The joint impact of humor and argument strength in a print advertising context: A case for weaker arguments" by Thomas W. Cline and James J. Kellaris. After studying the interaction of humor and argument, Cline and Kellaris report that lab studies appear to reveal that humor, when coupled with weak arguments, make the presentation persuasive, but humor coupled with stronger, or better arguments, actually causes the arguments to lose persuasiveness.

Thus, the lesson to the lawyers in the crowd is clear. If the facts and law are on your side, avoid the letters "k" "d" "p" and "q." If you're not so confident however, whip them consonants into service, and consider ending your brief with a Joe Piscopo quote.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Charles Kramer is a principal of the St. Louis, Missouri law firm Riezman, Berger, P.C. You may direct comments or criticisms about this column to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper, or direct to the Levison Group via e-mail, at comments@levisongroup.com.

© 2010 Under Analysis L.L.C.

Published: Fri, Feb 26, 2010