The Grammar of Legal English
The best-selling book The Legal English Grammar Guide shows how legal English differs from business and general English. Why is it so different to other legal English books?
Ideally, you would now be sitting with one of our expert Legal English language teachers being coached on the grammar of Legal English. In the absence of that, we have done our best to put some of the main points of this detailed subject into this article for you.
The general rule is that letters to clients should be in plain English whereas contracts, statutes and other "official" legal documents tend to contain formulaic structures that might be difficult to understand even for a lay person, let alone a student who is not a native speaker. Having noted that, it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of British lawyers rely on templates when writing contracts.
Why is Legal English different from General English?
Legal phrasing in English is derived from a mix of old French, Latin, old English and old Norse (Viking language). This is because of the various countries that invaded England hundreds of years ago.
For 300 years, French was the official language of England and while English was the most widely spoken language by the general population, French was used in court proceedings and Latin was used for official documentation.
Here is a sentence written in legal English/legalese:
"I return herewith the stipulation to dismiss the above case; the same being duly executed by me."
This sentence contains a mix of French, Latin and English words and is not an uncommon sentence in English law. Some lawyers we know would still write this in a letter. But what does it mean in plain English?
"I enclose the document to dismiss the case which has been signed by me."
While it is a significantly easier sentence, it does not sound so legal. This is perhaps another reason why British and American lawyers tend to use legalese - they need to show off their expensive education.
If you ask a lawyer for the reason for including nouns instead of verbs, writing in the passive voice or using Latin phrases then they will say that it for the avoidance of any doubt, but many people believe that this is disingenuous because if your command of English is good enough, you should be able to write a watertight document without the need for archaic terms.
The Plain English Campaign and Legal English UK have been attempting to encourage lawyers to 'tidy up' their use of these terms. Many experts doubt that this will happen as these phrases have been used for many hundreds of years and are ingrained in the legal lexicon. It will be difficult to change many years of habit.