Peter Tiersma,  Legal Language (University of Chicago Press, 1999).


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by Peter M. Tiersma

    This book aims to provide a relatively comprehensive description of legal English, including how it got to be the way that it is, its present characteristics, how lawyers use language in the courtroom, and the movement to reform it.  The major theme running through the book is how well legal language functions as a means of communication.  Many of the other uses or goals of legal language, including the goal of winning cases, the law's desire to appear objective and authoritative, and lawyers' use of language as a marker of prestige and badge of membership in the profession, may limit or conflict with that central aim.


    How did legal language get to be the way that it is?  Is it the result of a conspiracy by lawyers to retain their monopoly?  Or did it just develop naturally over the centuries?  To answer such questions we need to look at the history of the language of lawyers.


    The Celts
    There are virtually no remnants of the legal language of the original Celtic inhabitants of England, although there are some indications that it was poetic and not particularly comprehensible for ordinary people, a theme that continues to resonate.

    The Anglo-Saxons   
    The Anglo-Saxons pushed the Celtic language to the fringes of Britain.  Some Anglo-Saxon words or legal terms have survived to today, including writ, ordeal, witness, deem, oath and moot.  Words had an almost magical quality in Anglo-Saxon legal culture.  Their law used alliteration and conjoined phrases,  a practice that has, to a limited extent, survived to the present (as in rest, residue and remainder).  The increasing linguistic complexity of Anglo-Saxon laws led to more complicated legal language, suggesting that the complexity of legal language may to some extent simply reflect an increasingly complicated society.

    Latin and the Advent of Christianity
    Christian missionaries landed in 597 and (re)introduced Latin.  Latin terms that entered legal language in this period include words like clerk.  One impact of Christianity was to encourage the use of writing, which was later to have a tremendous impact on the law.  Although Latin was incomprehensible to most of the population, it enhanced communication at a time when there was no standard for written English.

    The Scandinavians
    Vikings raided the English coast, and eventually settled down.  Legal terms from Norse include the word law itself, but otherwise the language did not have a large impact on legal English.


    William the Conqueror Invades England
    The Norman conquest in 1066 placed French-speaking Normans in virtually all important positions in England; French thus became the language of power.  Virtually all English words relating to government are originally French.  The Normans initially used Latin rather than French as a written language of the law.  Only around 200 years after the conquest did French statutes appear.  They remain French until the 1480s.  Strong evidence that the courts operated in French did not appear until the end of the 13th century.  The use of French in courts seems tied to the expansion of jurisdiction of royal courts during this period; royal courts were logically conducted in French, which was still the language of the aristocracy and royal household at this time.  In a sense, therefore, adoption of French for legal purposes could initially have promoted communication with those most affected by royal law.

    Ironically, at the same time that French was in ascendancy as the language of the law, use of Anglo-French as a living language was beginning to decline.  It is probably no accident that this was also the period when a professional class of lawyers arose.  Soon after 1400, Anglo-French was virtually extinct as a living language, but it had become firmly entrenched as the professional language of lawyers. 

    The Continuing Use of Latin
    Throughout this period, Latin continued to be used as a legal language. It came to be known as "Law Latin," and included various legal terms of French origin, as well as English words when clerks did not know the Latin.  Legal maxims, even today, are often in Latin, which gives them a sense of heightened dignity and authority.  Names of writs (mandamus, certiorari) and terminology for case names (versus, ex rel., etc.) are still in Latin, perhaps a reflection of the use of Latin for writs and court records until the early 18th century.

    Law French
    French eventually became a language used only by lawyers, and became known as "Law French."  Early efforts to abolish it in court proceedings failed.  Possible reasons for the retention of Law French after its demise as a living language include claims that it allowed for more precise communication, especially with its extensive technical vocabulary; the dangers of having ordinary people read legal texts without expert guidance; the conservatism of the profession; and a possible desire by lawyers to justify their fees and to monopolize provision of legal services.  If nothing else, it reflects the conservatism of the profession at the time.

    Some of the characteristics of Law French that have left traces in today's legal language include addition of initial e to words like squire, creating esquire; adjectives that follow nouns (attorney general); simplification of the French verb system, so that all verbs eventually ended in -er, as in demurrer or waiver; and a large amount of technical vocabulary, including many of the most basic words in our legal system.  Law French eventually was reduced to around 1000 words, forcing lawyers to add English words to their French texts with abandon.  A notorious example is the "brickbat" case from 1631.

    Trilingualism and Code-switching
    During this period, lawyers had to be trilingual in French, Latin and English.  Each language was traditionally used in specified domains.  Even more than today, perhaps, law was in those days a profession of words.


    The Demise of Latin and Law French
    Use of Latin and Law French for legal purposes gradually declined, and was given a final coup de grâce in 1730.
    The Increasing Importance of Writing and Printing
    Legal language was originally entirely oral.  If there was a writing of a legal event, it was merely a report of the oral ceremony.  Eventually, the writing became a type of autoritative text, the dispositive or operative event itself.  What now mattered was what was written, and what was said became largely or entirely irrelevant.  This progression can be seen in written reports of court proceedings, which first merely documented an oral event, but which later became the event itself, so that what is said in an appellate court in the United States today is legally immaterial; what matters is the written opinion.  Legislation also went through this progression.  Printing contributed to these trends by allowing for a standardized and widely-available version of the written text.  Now all that matters is the enacted text of a statute, or the published version of a judicial opinion, which has led to an ever increasing fixation on the exact words of legislation, and has permitted the development of the doctrine of precedent. 

    Further Developments in England
    As pleadings became written, rather than oral, they also became subject to increasing textual scrutiny and were often rejected for the smallest linguistic slip.  This encouraged use of formbooks, which had a conservatizing effect on legal language by promoting continuing reuse of antiquated phrasing.  And legal documents became ever longer as clerks and lawyers charged by the page.  In part for these reasons, the legal profession began to find itself in low repute. 

    Legal English Throughout the World
    English colonizers transported legal English throughout the British Empire, including North America.  Despite antipathy towards lawyers and the English, the Americans maintained English legal language.  The Articles of Confederation were linguistically very convoluted and full of legalese.  Thomas Jefferson advocated improving the style of statutes, although did not really follow through.  The Declaration of Independence and American Constitution are elegant and relatively simple, but in general, American legal language closely resembled that of their former colonial masters.  The same is true in other former English colonies.  To a large extent, the retention of English legal language is closely related to the retention or adoption of English common law.  People who adopt concepts from another culture tend also to adopt the words used to describe those concepts.

    Lawyers did not invent Law French, or today's legal language, for the purpose of monopolizing the profession.  It developed naturally, under the influence of diverse languages and cultures, as well as the growing complexity of the legal system and the shift from predominantly oral to mainly written communication.  Yet to some extent, legal language does have the effect of enabling lawyers to retain their virtual monopoly on providing legal services.  The fact that laymen remain dependent on lawyers for creating and "translating" legal texts makes it hard for lawyers to abandon their distinctive language.


    How does the language of the law differ from ordinary speech and writing?  Do these differences enhance clear and precise communication, as lawyers typically claim, or detract from it?

    Lawyers seem to have developed some linguistic quirks that have little communicative function, and serve mainly to mark them as members of the legal fraternity. 

Pronunciation and Spelling as Markers of Group Cohesion  
    The odd pronunciation of defendant (with a full vowel in the last syllable, rhyming with ant) and the spelling judgment (consistently without an e) seem to serve as a marker of group cohesion.  Ironically, when pronouncing words of Latin or Law French origin, the recent trend is not to follow the expected traditional pronunciation of the legal profession (i.e., as though the words were English), but rather to use the articulation taught in foreign language classes.  The reason may be that the traditional legal pronunciation sounds unsophisticated to the modern ear, and lawyers are very concerned about appearing prestigious.

Lengthy and complex sentences
    Studies show that sentences in legal language are quite a bit longer than in other styles, and also have more embeddings, making them more complex.   Sometimes there seems to be an attempt to state an entire statute or linguistic principle in a single sentence, as illustrated by a California law against insuring lotteries.  Such a statute can easily be broken down into more digestible pieces with no loss in content, so there is no justification for such long sentences today.
Wordiness and redundancy
    Lawyers are very prone to use wordy and redundant phraseology, including what is sometimes called boilerplate.  Lawyers also tend to use ponderous phrases (such as at slow speed or subsequent to) where a single word would suffice (slowly; after).  On the other hand, sometimes legal language is not overly wordy at all, but highly compact or dense.  The economic incentives and strategic motivations under which lawyers operate seem to be significant here: when clients are paying a large fee, there is a motivation to be verbose; when a document is written for a busy court, however, lawyers realize they have to get to the point quickly.

Conjoined phrases
    Conjoined phrases consist of words like by and and or, as in I give, devise and bequeath the rest, residue and remainder...  They have been used since Anglo-Saxon times.  Conjoining words is still extremely common in legal language.  One reason for such lists of words is to be as comprehensive as possible.  They also can add emphasis.  But they can lead to ambiguity because of the rule of interpretation that every word should be given meaning and nothing treated as surplusage.  Thus, careful communication requires that lawyers use such conjoined phrases with care.
Unusual sentence structure
    Lawyers make use of unusual sentence structures, as in a proposal to effect with the Society an assurance, which is taken from an insurance policy.  Often these unusual structures result in separating the subject from the verb, or splitting the verb complex, which can reduce comprehension.

    Legal language seems to use an inordinate amount of negation.  To some extent this may result from the tendency to regulate by prohibition; judges prefer negative injunctions, for example.  Research reveals that especially multiple negation impairs communication and should be avoided.

Impersonal Constructions
    A related characteristic of legal style is impersonal constructions.  The best example is avoidance of first and second person expression (I and you).  Using the third person in statutes does make some communicative sense (as in Sex offenders shall register with the police...) because the statute "speaks" not only to sex offenders, but to the police and the courts; you might therefore be inappropriate or ambiguous.  Elsewhere (as in the tendency of judges to refer to themselves as the court rather than I) it creates an impression of objectivity and authority, thus helping to legitimate the legal system.  Multi-judge panels seem less reluctant to use we, and will even use this pronoun to refer to a decision made by their predecessors long ago.  Here, the first person stresses the continuity and perceived timelessness of the law.

    Many of the quirky or stylistic features of legal writing serve little or no communicative function and could easily be dispensed with, especially because they may reduce comprehension.


    One of the main justifications for a distinct legal language is that it is capable of extremely precise communication.

Avoiding Pronouns: "Player Promises That Player Will Play..."
    One means of gaining precision is to repeat nouns (e.g., player), rather than using a pronoun (e.g., he) after a person or thing is introduced.  Pronouns can sometimes have ambiguous reference, so this technique can indeed enhance precision.  Lawyers, however, avoid pronouns almost routinely, even where no ambiguity is possible.  Avoiding pronouns does have an unintended benefit: it reduces the use of sexist language. 

Undermining Precision: "The Masculine Shall Include the Feminine"
    Legal documents often declare that the masculine includes the feminine, the singular includes the plural, or that one tense includes the other.  This may originally have functioned to reduce verbosity, as suggested by Jeremy Bentham, but it obviously can undermine precise communication when reference to a specific gender, number or tense is desired.  Perhaps legal language is not always so precise, after all.

Strategic Imprecision: Obscuring the Actor Through Passives and Nominalizations 
    Passive sentences allow the speaker or writer to omit reference to the actor (as in the girl was injured at 5:30).  One reason lawyers use passives is for strategic reasons: to deliberately de-emphasize or obscure who the actor is.  Passives are therefore impersonal, giving them an aura of objectivity and authoritativeness; this may explain why they are common in court orders.  They are less common in contracts, where the parties typically wish to spell out exactly who is to do what, and thus have an interest in precise reference to the actors.
    Nominalizations are nouns derived from verbs (e.g., injury from the verb injure).  Like passives, they can be used to obscure the actor (the injury occurred at 5:30).  A legitimate function of nominalizations is that they allow the law to be stated as generally and objectively as possible.  Lawyers often use passives and nominalizations strategically, however.  They avoid them when they wish to be as precise as possible, and use them when they wish to be deliberately imprecise.

Flexible, General, or Vague Language
    Some legal terms are not precise at all, but are noted for their generality, flexibility, or even vagueness (e.g., reasonable or due process).  Flexibility has a valid communicative function; a term like reasonable can change with the times and circumstances.  Because it can change with the times, flexible language is characteristic of constitutions.  It may also be valuable when lawyers wish to be as comprehensive as possible.  Yet sometimes a term like obscene or indecent is felt to be too pliable, because it gives great discretion to the decisionmaker; the Supreme Court has tried to limit that flexibility by tying obscenity to community standards.  Flexibility is likewise less appropriate in criminal statutes in general, because people ought to know in advance what is legal and what is not.  Lawyers also are nervous of overly flexible language, because it may be interpreted in an unintended way in the future. 

The Tension Between Flexibility and Precision   
    Lawyers are often torn between the conflicting goals of flexible communication (through the use of general language) and precision (often by using word lists of specific examples).  Sometimes it is possible to avoid the vagueness problems inherent in flexible terms by using a word list, which tends to allow for more precise communication.  This is illustrated by a hunter harassment statute, which a court struck down on vagueness grounds when it forbade harassing hunters in general terms, but later upheld after the legislature added a specific list of prohibited activities.  But aiming for precision by using lists has its costs.  There are several interpretive maxims, including noscitur a sociis, ejusdem generis, and expressio unius, which all tend to restrict, rather than expand, the interpretation of items in a list.  Elsewhere, flexible language has sometimes proven preferable to precise lists, as shown by developments in the prudent investment rule.  Lawyers consequently aim to achieve the best of both worlds by using phrases like any X, including but not limited to a, b, and c, thus marrying the general and the specific, but there will inevitably be tensions between the two.

    Legal language can, in some ways, communicate quite precisely.  But other characteristics undermine precision, and certain features can be used strategically to be deliberately imprecise.  Furthermore, lawyers may opt for flexible communication, which is in some ways the opposite of precision and is often in tension with it. 

    Another way in which the language of the law is claimed to promote clear and concise communication is through a specific legal vocabulary.

    Legal Archaisms
    A common criticism of the legal vocabulary is that it is full of antiquated features.  These include archaic morphology (further affiant sayeth not); the legal use of same, said, aforesaid, such and to wit; use of the subjunctive, especially in the passive (be it known); and words like herewith, thereunder, and whereto.  Although these expressions often had a legitimate function in the past, the claim that archaic words or expressions should be preserved because they are somehow more precise than ordinary language is simply not defensible.

    Linguistic Creativity
        New Wine in New Bottles

    Even though some legal language is quite archaic, many other old legal terms have died off as the concepts to which they refer became obsolescent.  In fact, some areas of the legal lexicon are very innovative, as in terms like zoning and palimony.  Such terms give the law the ability to deal with novel circumstances and legal developments.

        Asylees, Escapees and Tippees
    Another example of linguistic creativity in legal language is the frequent formation of new words ending in -ee, which contrast to those ending in -or (mortgagee/mortgagor).  Although these pairs are confusing for the lay public, they can enhance communication within the profession by filling lexical gaps that exist in ordinary language. 

    Conservative or Innovative?
    Legal language is neither hopelessly conservative nor remarkably innovative.  Often there are reasons for using antiquated vocabulary.  Like religious language, the language of the law is quite conservative with regard to sacred or authoritative texts, which adherents are reluctant to change or even to translate for fear of affecting the meaning.  The fact that courts have authoritatively interpreted a term does inspire caution, of course.  Further, using proven language over and over can be economical.  A less palatable reason is that because archaic language is hard for most people to understand, lawyers sometimes have a financial incentive to use it to help justify their fees.  Yet when dealing with new legal concepts for which there is no existing word, lawyers do not hesitate to create novel terminology.  As a result of these conflicting motivations and goals, legal language is an odd mixture of archaic alongside very innovative features.

    Formal and Ritualistic Terminology
    The legal lexicon also has many formal or ritualistic words and phrases.  One function of such language is to emphasize that a proceeding is separate from ordinary life.  Often ritualistic language frames a legal event by signaling the beginning and the end.  In private legal documents, ritualistic and formal language indicates that something like a will is an important legal act, sometimes called the ritual or cautionary function of legal formalities.  Of course, this function could be fulfilled by means that are more comprehensible.  In fact, taken to extremes, formal language is simply pompous and serves little function besides its possible prestige value.

    Do and Shall
    When do is used in a declarative sentence, it is normally to add emphasis.  This is not its function in legal language (e.g., The People of California do enact...)  Here, it marks that something is a performative.  The adverb hereby (as in the People of California hereby enact...) fulfills the same function: indicating that by saying enact, the legislature by those very words engages in the act of enacting.  Because do is anachronistic and unusual in this usage, it should be avoided; hereby can easily communicate performativity, where necessary.

    Shall is also used in an unusual sense in legal language.  It is commonly said that legal use of shall does not indicate the future, but the imposition of obligation.  But shall appears to function also in promises or declarations.  In reality, shall seems to mark that the phrase in which it occurs is part of the content or proposition of a performative phrase.  Thus, in a contract the parties perform the act of promising by signing the contract; the content of their promises is indicated by shallShall does have the function of indicating that the document in which it occurs is legal, which may help explain its pervasiveness in legal language.  Generally, however, the meaning of shall can be communicated more comprehensibly by must or will or is.

    Jargon, Argot and Technical Terms

    It is sometimes said that the legal vocabulary is full of argot.  Argot is generally used to communicate in secret among a small group; this does not properly typify legal language.  Others claim that legal terminology is largely jargon.  I use the term jargon to refer to language of a profession that is not sufficiently precise to qualify as a technical term (e.g., conclusory).  Jargon can be useful in facilitating in-group communication, but should obviously be avoided in communicating with the public.

    If the distinctive legal vocabulary actually enhances communication, it must be mainly through technical terms, or terms of art.  It is sometimes claimed that legal language has few true terms of art.  Any law dictionary reveals that there are large numbers of technical terms, however.  Those who claim otherwise may have too strict a notion of the precision required for a technical term.  As long as an expression has a relatively exact meaning, is used by a particular trade or profession, and promotes brevity of expression, it fulfills an important communicative function and can properly be called a technical term.  Such terms are less exact in law than in the hard sciences because legal terms typically refer to concepts that change over time, or are slightly different in divergent jurisdictions.  And they may be modified by judicial decisions.  Contrary to expectations, judicial decisions, by following the intent of the drafter over the "plain meaning" of a word, often make the meaning of the word less precise.  Courts and the legal profession could work together to make legal terminology much more exact, but it would come at the cost of negating the intentions of speakers who use a term in a different sense.  Legal terminology will therefore never be as precise as the profession might hope.

    Relationships Among Words   
    In ordinary English words exhibit certain systematic lexical relationships.  The same is true for legal language, but with a number of deviations that can trap the uninitiated.

    One way that words can be related is as homonyms, or via polysemy.  In either case, one word or sound sequence has two or more meanings.  This can cause communication problems when legal terms have both an ordinary meaning and a divergent legal meaning (as in consideration or personal property).  These words, which I call legal homonyms, are particularly problematic because laymen are very likely to (mis)interpret them in their ordinary sense, and even courts are sometimes unsure whether the ordinary or technical meaning was intended.

    Words can also be related as synonyms, which refers to words with very similar meanings.  On the one hand, lawyers are told to avoid synonyms or elegant variation.  Using a different word is assumed to invoke a different meaning.  On the other hand, lawyers have a great love for long lists of synonyms, especially in conjoined phrases.  Lists of synonyms can thus create interpretative problems.

    A final relationship is antonymy, or lexical opposites.  Legal language has a tendency to create such opposition where it does not normally occur.  Speech and conduct overlap in ordinary language, but American courts now treat them legally as opposites: if something is speech, the First Amendment applies; if an action is mere conduct, it does not.  Yet it must be confusing for the layperson to read that burning an American flag is free "speech."


    This section discusses several ways in which legal interpretation and meaning differ from ordinary language interpretation, and some of the reasons why.

    Definitions nowadays are normally descriptive, which means they are based on usage.  In common law countries, no one has the authority to dictate how a word ought to be used, which would constitute a prescriptive definition.  Definitions in legal language, however, are prescriptive because here there is an institution that can dictate how a word ought to be used: the legislature. 

    I call these declaratory definitions.  They also occur in contracts and other legal documents.  Such definitions can promote more precise drafting by stipulating that one of several possible meanings is intended.  But they are also hazardous, because the reader may not always realize that what seems to be an ordinary word is defined in a specific--sometimes, aberrant--way.   There are also incorporating definitions, which are not really definitions at all.  They simply take a large amount of text and define it as X, allowing the text to be removed from the body of the statute and placed with the definitions.  Although the practice can minimize redundancy in the text, it can also make less transparent and harder to find.

    Reference is important to the law; the law of trademarks is largely about preserving the unambiguous reference of marks.  Ambiguity of reference can also cause problems in wills.  To avoid referential ambiguity in legal documents, lawyers often use what I call declaratory reference, declaring in a document that Garcia shall refer to Hilda Garcia, an individual residing in San Antonio, Texas.  Linguists also distinguish between referential descriptions (a specific person or thing) and attributive descriptions (whoever meets the description).  This is quite relevant in the law of wills, where a gift of my car could be either referential--the car I now own--or attributive (whatever car I own at death).  Further, legislation is almost always written in an attributive (thus, objective) way, applying to any person who fits a description.  This can be abused, however, as when a tax break that seems to be attributive in fact refers to a specific person or entity.

    Legal interpretation differs in several ways from ordinary understanding.  In ordinary language, what really matters is what a speaker means by an utterance (speaker's meaning), rather than what a word or utterance means (word or sentence meaning).  Irony provides a good example, because here the sentence meaning (I love being hit on the head by a brick) is highly misleading.  In theory, legal interpretation of private documents also focuses on the speaker's meaning, but this is undermined by the evidentiary limitations of the parol evidence rule.  With statutory interpretation, courts now often look to the intent of the speakers (legislative intent).  Yet referring to legislative intent is controversial, especially in the theory of interpretation called textualism, which has revived the plain meaning rule.  The plain meaning rule excludes consideration of extrinsic evidence when the meaning of a statute is plain from a reading of the text itself.  This is completely inconsistent with ordinary language interpretation, which uses any cues it can--such as shared background knowledge or information on the circumstances of an utterance--to determine the speaker's meaning. 

    But the plain meaning rule is not entirely irrational; it derives to some extent from the historic shift from oral to written communication.  We tend to interpret written texts differently from speech.  Someone who writes a text often tries to make it as autonomous as possible, so that any information needed to interpret it is contained in the text itself.  This is often necessary, because the reader of a text may be in a very different location, at a very different time, and may know little or nothing about the circumstances surrounding the writer.  Logically enough, legal documents are written to be very autonomous.  One view of the plain meaning rule, therefore, is that judges will assume that the drafter was successful in creating an autonomous document, so that ideally extrinsic evidence should not be needed.  At least as an initial assumption, this seems sensible.

    Another reason for legal interpretation to place less emphasis on the speaker's meaning is the problem of collective authorship, as well as the fact that one or more of the authors may be dead or otherwise unavailable.  Furthermore, legal interpretation must deal with the problem of gaps, when the text is silent on a particular point.  In a spoken conversation, one interlocutor can ask the other to fill the gap.  With most legal documents, courts must find some other means of deciding what to do when the text is silent.  Courts thus necessarily construct meaning where there was none before, rather than simply interpreting the text.  This is sometimes difficult to spot because courts prefer not to act in overtly authoritative ways, so they continue to speak of interpretation while actually engaging in construction.

    A final difference between legal and ordinary interpretation derives from the fact that an interpreter must always keep in mind the rules and conventions used by the speaker or writer.  There is a symbiotic relationship between encoding and decoding language.  The evidence accumulated in this book suggests that legal writers do indeed use language and drafting conventions that are distinct from ordinary language.  An example is that normally if someone uses synonyms, we assume she is engaging in elegant variation and that the synonymous terms refer to the same thing.  Legal drafters generally try to avoid such variation; the legal interpreter will thus assume that the synonyms in fact refers to something different.  Most students of legal interpretation have concentrated on what courts do, but they should perhaps pay more attention to the legal language and conventions of the drafters.


    Legal Dialects
    Dialects reflect linguistic variation on the basis of geography.  Legal language is not a dialect, but it does have dialects of its own in that it varies according to place.  Some of this dialectal variation results from differences in legal systems; English lawyers speak of solicitors and barristers, a distinction not made in the United States.  Elsewhere, the concepts are similar, but words for them are different (British company law versus American corporate law).  In countries such as India, legal English is infused with many terms for indigenous legal concepts.  Thus, even though legal language is quite conservative in some senses, in other ways it again reveals itself as a relatively flexible means of communication by readily adapting to the situation in which it is used.

    Spoken Legal Language
    Legal language further varies depending on whether it is spoken or written.  The most salient characteristics of legalese--archaic vocabulary, long and convoluted sentences, use of passives and nominalizations--are far more evident in written legal language.  Written language is also more compact and dense.  Spoken legal language tends to be less formal overall.  An oral judgment by an English judge is perhaps the most formal type of spoken legal English.  Oral arguments to a court tend to be in standard English, while addressing a jury might very well be in a regional variety of English that is aimed at identifying with the local population.  As with medieval lawyers, choice of language variety in specified domains is dictated to some extent by tradition, but these days strategy also plays an important role.
    Telegraphic Speech
    Telegraphic speech leaves out all words that could be supplied by context; it is common in telegrams and headlines.  It is often heard in the courtroom (lawyer: Objection! Judge: Overruled), but also in some quite formal settings, as at the end of an opinion (appeal dismissed).  It again illustrates that lawyers can cut out excess verbiage when its suits their purpose.

    Legal Slang
    Despite claims that their speech habits are very formal, even pompous, lawyers not infrequently use legal slang.  Slang enhances group cohesion and is often shorter (thus more "linguistically efficient") than more formal language.  Examples include rogs for interrogatories, TRO for temporary restraining order, SLAPP suit for strategic lawsuit against public participation, and idioms like grant cert for grant a writ of certiorari.

    Variation and Genre
    There are various genres, or types, of legal writing.  They illustrate again that legal language is not monolithic, but can vary substantially depending on the situation.  Pleadings, petitions, orders, contracts, deeds and wills can be called operative legal documents because they create and modify legal relations.  They tend to use a great deal of legalese.  Expository documents are those that explain the law, including office memoranda, judicial opinions, and client letters.  They tend to be in formal but standard English, with little legalese, except that they do use many technical terms.  Especially judicial opinions have a fair amount of stylistic freedom, making use of metaphors and sometimes even poetry.  Persuasive documents include briefs to a court and memoranda of points and authorities; their language is similar to expository documents.  It is interesting and ironic to observe that documents drafted more directly for clients (operative documents like wills and contracts) seem to contain the most legalese, while those directed to colleagues within the profession (expository and persuasive documents) contain relatively less.

    So What Is Legal Language Exactly?
    Legal language has been called an argot, a dialect, a register, a style, and even a separate language.  In fact, it is best described with the relatively new term sublanguage.  A sublanguage has its own specialized grammar, a limited subject matter, contains lexical, syntactic, and semantic restrictions, and allows "deviant" rules of grammar that are not acceptable in the standard language.  However we describe it, legal language is a complex collection of linguistic habits that have developed over many centuries and that lawyers have learned to use quite strategically.



    A very general narrative structure, sufficient for our purposes, begins with some background information, continues with a chronological description of a series of events that leads to a problem or crisis.  The narrative ends with the resolution of the problem or crisis. 

    The pleading stage, which begins a lawsuit, is where the plaintiff tells his story to the court.  As a narrative, it is incomplete in at least two important ways.  Unlike an ordinary story, which is asserted as truth, the story told in a complaint is merely alleged to be true; its truth remains to be established at trial.  And it is incomplete in the sense that there has not yet been a resolution of the problem or crisis; this depends on the outcome of the trial.
    The defendant can respond to the pleading in various ways: arguing that the story in the complaint is not legally adequate, or that the decisionmaker does not have the authority to offer a resolution (jurisdiction). Another option is to admit that the story is adequate, but to challenge its truth by denying the facts, or offering a counternarrative.

    Pleadings tend to be extremely ritualistic in language.  In medieval times, what mattered was not so much the content of a pleading as the words that were used; one slip could be fatal.  Pleading remains formal and ritualistic, but currently the content has become far more important than the form.

    Once the pleadings have determined that the plaintiff's story is legally adequate, the trial--to determine the truth--can begin.


    Many cases do not actually go to trial, but are settled.  In criminal law, the settlement process is called plea bargaining, a process that can be quite informal and has developed a jargon or slang of its own. 

    When a case does not settle, it proceeds to trial.  Various rituals signal that a trial is about to commence.  The first order of business in a jury trial is the voir dire of the jurors.  The search for truth can then commence.  Most of the examples in the next two chapters derive from two murder trials, including that of O.J. Simpson.

Language Variation and Code-Switching in the Courtroom
   Just as lawyers switch between language varieties when writing, they do the same when speaking in the courtroom.  Normally, choice of one variety over another depends on the topic of conversation, or the ability of the hearer to understand a particular type of speech.  Yet using a particular variety of language also has social implications in that we judge people by the language they use.  Furthermore, use of a common variety of language can create a sense of group cohesion.  Lawyers are inclined to use standard English in court when they wish to appear intelligent and competent, and regional varieties of English when they wish to bond with a jury.

Questioning of Witnesses
    Witnesses come to court to tell their own story, which forms part of the larger narrative that is on trial.  Although they generally prefer to tell their tales in narrative form, the legal system forces them to testify through a rigid question and answer format, which allocates control over testimony to the examining lawyer. 

Direct Examination. 
    Direct examination generally begins with giving the witness an opportunity to present a very brief narrative.  The examining lawyer then generally follows up with increasingly coercive or controlling questions, including wh-questions, which limit the witness to a brief response, or yes/no or alternative questions, which allow only two possible responses. 

    Lawyers use such questioning strategically, to ensure that all and only legally relevant facts are told, as well as to keep problematic facts from emerging, if possible.  Careful questioning can also enhance precise communication by clarifying ambiguities in a witness's answer, or by asking the witness to explain unusual terminology. 

    Cross-Examination.  Cross-examination allows an even more coercive question type: leading questions.  Such questions are not tied to any specific form, but have in common that they suggest a single answer.  One function of such questions is to muddy the waters by undermining the clarity of the witness's communication during direct examination.  Or they can be used to undermine credibility by eliciting a clear statement that can later be contradicted by other evidence, as Simpson's lawyers did during cross-examination of Detective Mark Fuhrman.

The Language of Questioning
    Lawyers are well aware that if they wish to communicate effectively with the jury though questioning, they must generally use ordinary English, not legalese.  Their language tends to be fairly formal, however, to convey to jurors that they are intelligent and competent.  Out of the presence of jurors, as during sidebar conferences, lawyers tend to be less formal and may even use slang, perhaps to emphasize that although they are adversaries, they belong to the same profession.

Implications of the Questioning Process
    Questioning is not a neutral and transparent process of obtaining information.  Narrative answers are generally more accurate than fragmented responses, for example.  The wording of a question can influence the responses given by witnesses, according to psycholinguistic tests.  Research also confirms that leading questions can influence the recall of witnesses.  While objections by counsel can limit these influences, suggestive questioning is particularly problematic when it is used to subtly coach witnesses, out of the presence of a jury or opposing counsel.

    The way that questions are answered can also influence the perceived credibility of the witness, the examining attorney, or both.  Witnesses who speak in a powerful style (using little hedging and hesitation, for example), as well as those who speak formal standard English, tend to be evaluated as more intelligent, competent, and truthful.  This is especially problematic for witnesses who cannot easily change their speech style.  Ironically, trial lawyers have become aware of the research and are attempting to incorporate it into their trial strategies.

Creating a Written Record
    The testimony of witnesses is transcribed by a court reporter.  It is not truly verbatim and complete.  One reason is that nonverbal information is not consistently included, although lawyers will sometimes ask that the record reflect nonverbal information.  More troubling is that reporters sometimes "clean up" the language of lawyers and judges, to enhance their feelings of prestige. 

    As in other areas of the law, the written text of the record has become what matters once the trial is over, making the actual oral event virtually irrelevant in subsequent proceedings.  Lawyers consciously try to create an advantageous record through their questioning strategies.  And as with other written legal documents, the record tends to be interpreted as an autonomous text.  Thus, in perjury prosecutions, courts fixate on the language of the record to determine whether a witness made a false statement, largely ignoring the speaker's actual intentions.


    After the lawyers have produced evidence (largely testimony) to prove  or negate the plaintiff's story, they make their summation or closing argument.    

Closing Arguments
    In closing, the plaintiff's attorney must weave together a complete narrative out of the disorganized fragments that were presented by various witnesses and other evidence at trial, much like a film editor.  She must also persuade the jury that the story is true.  Although lawyers tend to favor long lists of synonyms, for example, in closing they typically chose one or two that convey a sense or connotation that favors their strategic interest (as in calling an unborn child a baby in an abortion prosecution).  They also use antonymy by contrasting one term with its opposite. 

    Although some lawyers use fairly formal standard English, they generally tend to be more effective if they use a somewhat more conversational variety.  During her summation in the Simpson case, prosecutor Marcia Clark tried to bond with the female jurors by opening herself up and revealing her emotions, but was not really successful.  Prosecutor Darden may have been somewhat more successful, carefully using second person pronouns to suggest that the murder victim, Nicole Simpson, was sending jurors a message from beyond the grave. 

    Defense attorny Johnny Cochran successfully personalized his client by emphasizing that he was Orenthal James Simpson, not merely the defendant.  Like Anglo-Saxons of long ago, he used conjoined alliterative phrases (that the evidence was compromised, contaminated and corrupted) and rhyme (if it doesn't fit, you must acquit).  Unlike Clark, Cochran successfully bonded with the mainly African American jury by invoking themes and images of the civil rights movement, and speaking like a preacher in a Black church.  He used inclusive we to suggest a shared journey towards justice.  Overall, by using relatively formal and standard English, he came across as well educated, while the subtle intonation and accents of a Black preacher allowed him to invoke group solidarity.

Instructing the Jury
    In many proceedings, it is members of the public--the jury--who must decide the truth of the plaintiff's story.  To some extent, the jury must also decide whether the story is legally adequate.  Judges tell the jury how to go about this task by means of jury instructions.  Unfortunately, most jury instructions are essentially written legal language, though presented orally, and thus do not communicate the law very well to the lay members of the jury.  And judges seem to prefer formal language to appear objective by distancing themselves from other participants.

    The reasonable doubt instruction is especially problematic; there is substantial evidence that jurors do not understand it very well, in part because it tracks the language of an 1850 case.  Unfortunately, judges are extremely reluctant to explain the instructions in ordinary language, treating them as sacred text, and generally rereading them verbatim if the jury inquires regarding their meaning.

Resolving the Conflict
    Just as lawyers use stories to present their cases, research indicates that jurors use them to determine the truth.  The "truth" determined by the verdict is not factual truth, however, but "declared truth," which governs all later legal proceedings.  After this "truth" is established, the judge is in a position to complete the unfinished narrative of the complaint by offering a resolution (or denying one) in her judgment.


    Members of the public have been frustrated with legal language for quite some time.  There has also been criticism from within the profession.  In this section we discuss efforts to reform the language of the law.  This can happen either via simplification (making the language of lawyers much more like ordinary language) or translation (leaving legal language essentially as it is but providing better translation to the public in ordinary language, when needed).  Ultimately, we will probably need a bit of each.


    Research shows many of the ways in which legal language causes problems in comprehension, especially for a lay audience.  Technical vocabulary, unusual and archaic words, impersonal constructions, use of moadal like shall, multiple negation, long and complex sentences, and poor organization are all problematic.  In fact, virtually all features of legal English seem to impede communication with the public.

    13.    PLAIN ENGLISH

    Given that legal language does not communicate very will with the public, what has the profession done about it?

Internal Legal Language
    Internal legal language refers to communications directed at other legal professionals.  Here, the need to reform would seem less compelling.  Yet even internal communications are generally made on behalf of a client, who has a right to know what is being asserted on her behalf.

    One area where the courts have explicitly recognized that people have a right to know what legal language means is criminal statutes, which must place the "average person" on notice that something is illegal.  It is doubtful, however, that people really understand such statutes.  Unfortunately, it may not be realistic to expect the average person to understand statutes.  Understanding a statute requires more than plain language; a person must also have some background knowledge of the legal system and relevant judicial decisions.  Still, we should strive to make statutory law as clear as possible.  In fact, a fair amount of progress has been made; law schools teach plain English principles and drafting manuals encourage such practices.  There has been progress in non-English speaking countries, like Sweden and Japan, as well.  Overall, the organization and format of statutes has dramatically improved, and there is far less legalese.  Unfortunately, statutes are ever more complicated in terms of substance.  Better drafting practices in some ways allows them to become longer and longer. 

    Progress with other types of internal legal language is more mixed.  Pleadings are still very formulaic.  On the other hand, judicial opinions have greatly improved in style (though perhaps somewhat less in the United Kingdom). 

Consumer Documents
    Members of the public have an even greater interest in understanding consumer documents, which directly affect their rights and obligations.
Evidence shows that consumers do not understand legal documents like credit agreements and insurance policies very well.

    The Plain English Movement
    The Plain English Movement, part of the consumer movement, grew out of the notion that people should be able to understand important consumer documents.  The movement was inspired by a revised promissory note introduced by Citibank in the 1970s, and eventually led to a fair amount of plain English legislation.  Similar reforms occurred in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom. 

    Plain English Legislation
    Is legislation the most effective way of promoting plain English?  The earliest such statutes were phrased in very general or flexible terminology, requiring documents simply to be "clear and coherent."  Later legislation aimed for greater specificity and precision by use of the list approach, establishing a list of guidelines like the use of active verbs, short sentences, and no cross references.  But guidelines are only as good as the people who apply them, and are hard for judges to review.  A somewhat different approach is objective, requiring that documents meet certain readability criteria, like the Flesch test.  This test is easy to apply because it merely measures the average length of sentences and words.  Scholars have criticized it because there is no direct relationship between word or sentence length and comprehension.  Yet if we assume that writers are acting in good faith and not trying to fool the test, it does seem to measure comprehension fairly well.  In the long run, more complex and accurate computer programs will probably be available to accomplish this task.

    Some Remaining Challenges
    Although the Plain English Movement has made substantial progress in improving the language of consumer documents, there are other types of documents that affect the rights and obligations of the public but are still typically in legalese.  These include wills, medical consent forms and consents to search, releases of liability, legal notices, and warnings.  The movement still has work to be done.


    In a sense, jurors who receive jury instructions are also consumers.  And like consumers, they do not understand the legal language that is read to them very well.

Confusion and its Consequences
    There is a substantial body of research showing that pattern jury instructions poorly communicate the law to the jury.  Revised instructions raise the level of comprehension significantly.  This is an important point, because we cannot expect jurors to follow the law when they do not understand it.  Unfortunately, courts are very reluctant to deviate from tried-and-true instructions which track the language of a statute or have been approved by an appellate court, even if that approval came many decades ago.  Judges who try to explain the instruction in plain language typically are overruled.  Jury questions about the instruction are generally answered by simply rereading the antiquated language of the original.  Yet legal accuracy is pointless if jurors do not understand the instruction very well in the first place.  Perhaps the only real possibility for reform is the committees that draft pattern instructions in many states.  Several such committees have indeed tried to improve comprehension, but progress has been uneven.  Often change is controversial, leading to maintenance of the status quo.

Capital Instructions: Comprehension As a Matter of Life or Death
    Nowhere are the consequences of poor communication more dramatic than in capital cases.  Constitutionally, capital juries must have guidance in carrying out their task.  Because the guidance comes largely in the form of obscure jury instructions, it is often sorely lacking.  For example, many state death penalty laws instruct jurors to weigh mitigating and aggravating evidence.  But mitigate is a formal word that many people do not understand, and aggravate is a legal homonym: it has an ordinary meaning (annoy) that differs in an important way from its legal meaning (a reason to put someone to death).  There is evidence that many jurors do not understand these terms very well, even though they are essential in deciding whether to recommend the death penalty. 

    The problem is not just comprehension of individual words.  A survey by Professor Hans Zeisel found that jurors did not sufficiently understand several points conveyed by the Illinois pattern instructions, including the critical point that they were to balance mitigating and aggravating factors.  This evidence was offered to the federal courts in the habeas corpus petition of James Free, a condemned murderer.  A federal district court was convinced that Free's jury was indeed confused, and vacated his death sentence.  Before the Free case could be appealed, another inmate on Illinois's death row, the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, argued that his jury had received the same instructions and that his sentence--on the grounds of the Zeisel survey--should also be set aside.  He lost in the trial court, and lost again on appeal.  Finally, Free's case came before the Seventh Circuit.  The court rejected the Zeisel survey, in part because there had been no control group that received revised instructions.  Of course, there is strong evidence that as a general matter, revision of instructions using plain language principles invariably increases comprehension.  Indeed, a later study using a control group showed that revising the Free instructions resulted in significantly better understanding. 

    Of course, the law is complex; the research into jury instructions indicates that the ordinary public will never understand all aspects of it perfectly, even if stated in plain language.  But jurors can and should understand their task much better than they now do. 


    Legal language includes some very complex linguistic practices of an ancient profession.  Because legal English itself is not monolithic, and is used to attain various goals, our assessment of its usefulness will depend on a large number of considerations.  Some of its features are nothing more than time-worn habits that have long outlived any useful communicative function.  Other characteristics arguably serve some function, such as signaling that an event is an important proceeding, or enhancing the cohesiveness of lawyers as a group, but should be abandoned because they detract too much from the paramount goal of clear and efficient communication.  In yet other cases, lawyers approach language strategically, actually preferring obscurity to clarity; obviously, such usage impedes the overall goals of the legal system and its language.  More problematic are features that clearly enhance communication within the profession but mystify outsiders.  Here, we may need to weigh how important it is for the lay public to understand the language at issue.  In the final analysis, legal language must be judged by how clearly and effectively it communicates the rights and obligations conferred by a constitution, the opinions expressed by a court, the regulations embodied in a statute, or the promises exchanged in a contract.  While ordinary people may never understand every detail of such legal documents, our law should be stated as clearly and plainly as it can be.  Democracy demands no less.


    The appendix includes a selection of legal texts, including an Anglo-Saxon land grant, a case report in Law French, a modern will, excerpts from the OJ Simpson jury instructions, and an original and revised Citibank (plain English) promissory note.