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Law and the English Language

George Orwell wrote his essay 'Politics and the English Language' to criticise the poor use of written English at the time (1946) in political language.  Orwell believed that political language was designed to make 'lies sound truthful'.  The language being used was vague or meaningless as a way of disguising what the practitioner had meant to say.  Orwell pleaded for solidity in the language as a way of avoiding ambiguity.


In this article, we look at whether Orwell's essay still has relevance today and whether lawyers and law students can gain from the rules he laid out.  Orwell argued back then that English was being used in a lazy way, so heaven knows what he would think of emojis and text messages nowadays.  


Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.


People often use figures of speech in English when they have no actual idea what they mean.  A perfect example is the overuse of the word 'literally' while Orwell offered up 'ring the changes' and 'Achilles heel'.  While one is unlikely to hear a lawyer use these phrases in the courtroom or in a brief, a lawyer should always bear in mind this advice when drafting a contract.  Every word and phrase must be clear and avoid ambiguity.  


Never use a long word where a short one will do.


All of us are guilty of using longer words in an attempt to impress a boss or partner in the mistaken belief that it indicates a good education.  


If the purpose of your writing is to communicate effectively, please aim for concise vocabulary.  This particularly applies to letters and e-mails.  Official documents such as contracts and agreements carry their own language so you will have to tread more carefully here, but your law firm will have templates for this.  


If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out


Do read through any documents that you send and be liberal in your use of the delete button on your keyboard.  If a word seems superfluous or unnecessary then do not feel ashamed of cutting it out completely.  


Students often ask us why there are so many words in legal English (and English for that matter) that mean the same thing, e.g. 'goods and chattels', 'will and testament.'  This can be traced back to Norman times when legal draughtsmen were paid per word for their work.  Latin, English and Norman French were all used at the time so the draughtsmen would put every word in.  It certainly avoided ambiguity and helped them to be paid more!


Never use the passive where you can use the active.


Passive voice is common in legal English and academic work, although some academics argue that excessive use of the passive can lead to a lack of clarity.   Others would argue that there is still a need for passive in legal English, which is what Orwell argues too.  We would suggest that where you can, always opt for the active voice.  


Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.


The British are fond of using foreign (usually French) phrases and jargon words in their conversation while Latin features heavily in everyday legal life.  The Plain English Campaign has suggested that all Latin phrases should be banished and some councils in the UK have already banned their officials from using the phrases as they confuse people.  


While a basic knowledge of Latin is useful, we side with the Plain English Campaign on this.  To offer one example:  'In Camera' means when a court meets in private, yet if you ask most people they will tend to (naturally) think the opposite.  


Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


This rule is the most apt in relation to English language and the Law.  As a student of English, you should be aware of the concept of 'register' or gearing your language to the reader or listener you are communicating with.  While Latin terminology can be cumbersome, there will always be occasion when a lawyer has to use it.  While simple vocabulary should be used, there will be times where a speaker has to be more precise and only a longer word will do.  



Legal English Language Training UK runs courses in English for lawyers online and face-to-face in London, Moscow, Dubai, Singapore and other major cities around the world.  For further information on how our specialist language teachers can help you or your law firm, contact us on 020 3566 0145, by e-mail or by filling in the form on the screen.  

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