Learning Legal English, Plain English & Plain Langauge

What is Legalese? And how can you avoid it in your own writing?

What does ‘legalese’ mean?

I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘legalese’ and you might be wondering what it is. The usual place to start looking for something is google, so let’s do that and look for ‘what is legalese?’ In the results, google naturally points you in the direction of some definitions:

  • Mirriam-Webster says legalese is “the specialized language of the legal profession”
  • Thoughtco.com says “Legalese is an informal term for the specialized language (or social dialect) of lawyers and of legal documents”
  • Cambridge says legalese is the “language used by lawyers and in legal documents that is difficult for ordinary people to understand”

If you think about the above definitions, you might think that:

  1. legalese is a language or type of language which involves specialised vocabulary and structure,
  2. to understand law, you have to learn legalese as you have to know it and use it, and
  3. ‘ordinary people’ might have a problem understanding legalese.

Consequently, these three points put up barriers in the sense that: 1) if you don’t know the specialised vocab or structure, you won’t understand it. This idea of lack of understanding is reinforced by 2) as you have to invest time and energy to learn legalese before you use it as you would with any language. This inevitably leads to 3) in that ‘ordinary people’ might not be able to understand it as it is just lawyers with their special skill set that can understand and use legalese.

The above might go some way to explaining why an ordinary person’s general response to legalese is negative. Ordinary people don’t understand or like reading legalese; yet, still have to rely on this language they don’t understand.

But exactly what is legalese?

In trying to define legalese, people might just focus on the vocabulary used in legalese – the difficult-to-understand words. And that might be a reasonable thing to do – this is the first strange thing you see that separates ‘legalese’ from other languages and allows you to identify it as something different. And let’s face it, there are plenty of words in legal language that you wouldn’t see in everyday English. Examples would be legal adverbs like: heretofore, whereby, thereinafter etc. or legal Latin such as ‘mens rea’, ‘arguendo’, and ‘prima facie’. You can point at the word or words you think is/are making the text difficult to understand and say, ‘what does this word mean?’ or ‘why don’t lawyers just write in plain English?’

But, in my opinion, this definition – that focuses on words as the identifier of legalese – is not the correct approach for three reasons.

  • Definitions of legalese.

The first reason is given in the definitions I highlighted above. In all three definitions, legalese is identified as a ‘language’. Vocabulary is only one of the elements that make up language, it is not the only element.

  • Alternatives to legalese vocabulary.

Secondly, most legalese words can be replaced with easy-to-understand alternatives (e.g. see this plain language lexicon) or, in some cases, be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, if we could just change the words, then the problem of legalese would just disappear.

  • Look at the legal English writing coursebooks and courses.

Also, if you look at the most important coursebooks or reference books that have been written by the giants in the legal English field e.g. Garner, Wydick, Butt etc, and the chapters within, you’ll see that focus on legalese words themselves forms only a small part of the book relative to the rest of the content.

These three reasons are enough to convince me (and hopefully you) that legalese is not all about the legalese words – it is more than just a vocabulary issue.

So what is legalese?

If legalese is not the vocab, then what is it? The other major component of a language is the structure that is used to put all of the words together to communicate your message. If you look at the coursebooks written by legal English doctrine writers that I mentioned above, most of the content of those books focuses on changing the structure of your writing to communicate your message in a better way.

Indeed, if you look at my first version of my writing course – the videos are here, here, and here – most of the videos look at structure, not words. Of course, there is mention of the vocabulary you shouldn’t use, but in many cases, in changing a word, you often have to change the structure of the sentence at the same time e.g. changing nominalisations or removing legal prepositional phrases.

Therefore, legalese seems to be more in structure than vocabulary. This realisation has led me to define legalese as:

‘the over-complicated way of communicating a message by using unnecessarily complicated language structures, and in some cases specialised vocabulary, to mask a message and potentially create ambiguity.’

You can see in my definition that I do not specifically refer to lawyers or law. Indeed, my definition might include anyone (businessmen, academics, students, office workers etc) in any area (business, engineering, pharmaceuticals etc). My definition essentially means that everyone is capable of taking a simple message and turning it into a difficult-to-understand message. This is easy to do, especially if you want to/have to use specialised vocabulary or jargon. We’ll investigate this in more detail in a future blog post.

My definition points us towards the need for a writer to fight temptation and avoid ‘sophistication’ in written language – a huge problem for unnecessary over-complication of structure in legal language – and keep the message as simple as possible.

And there is clear evidence that avoiding this ‘legalese’ is beneficial in terms of how you look in front of your peers (see Benson and Kessler’s study Legalese v Plain English: An empirical study of persuasion and credibility in appellate brief writing) and in terms of improving client relationships (see Kimble: Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please).

Avoid legalese – keep your language structure simple

The easiest way to avoid legalese is to keep your structures simple. The added bonus to this is that a simple language structure allows you to use complex or difficult vocabulary. Every ‘English’ has its specific vocabulary or jargon – it’s something that cannot be avoided (although it can be minimized). However, putting that vocabulary into a simple sentence structure really makes life easier for the reader.

But, as simple as it is to say that, it is difficult to do. The authors above have written books that all run to tens or even hundreds of pages – you can read my review of some of those books in my post: What are the best legal English books to develop your writing or vocabulary?

The revised version of my course is 31 lessons long – a semester-long course. What I am saying is, that this is not an easy or short process. Essentially, there are two parts to avoiding legalese:

  • learn how to identify legalese in your writing, avoid it, and therefore write more effectively, and
  • practice, get feedback, practice, get more feedback, and never give up trying to improve your writing skills.

You will need access to good resources, time, energy, willingness, and a reason; generally, these are the same reasons you will have to learn any new language! However, just like learning a new language, it might take time, but it can be done.

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One thought on “What is Legalese? And how can you avoid it in your own writing?

  1. DENNIS DELANY says:

    I remember when my father passed away the revenue commissioners (in the ROI) sent my mother a letter within less than a week which featured this classic example of legalese: “if you have any interests from which you are in receipt of interest you must complete this form…” I wrote back an angry letter telling them that they if they are going to write letters to grieving widows about death taxes the least they could do was phrase them intelligibly.

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