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Legal English Usage

How to use Legal English

A guide for lawyers and law students needing to improve their Legal English language skills.

Our Legal English language teachers work frequently with British and American solicitors and barristers to improve their grammar skills. This may come as a surprise to many readers of this blog who thought that we only work with students from outside the English-speaking world.

New Findings

We have found that an increasing number of British lawyers are seeking to improve their understanding of the grammar and structure of English in order to write better briefs, argue better in the court and meeting rooms and contribute far more effectively to journals and legal blogs.

Why should lawyers learn grammar?

Most native speakers of English are unlikely to learn grammar at school as they grow up speaking their mother tongue without the need to learn the intricacies and nuances of it. Native speakers will also be around poor use of English every day, whether it is in the media or displayed on a shop sign. These contributes to poor English and an overall lack of communication skills.

With this in mind, we will take a look at some grammar rules that remain largely unknown to British lawyers and law students but which will make a considerable difference to your career if used correctly.

1. Word Order in Sentences

English speakers know instinctively that adjectives follow a particular order within a sentence. The order is "opinion - size - age - shape - colour - material - purpose - noun". Therefore, a criminal lawyer might introduce a piece of evidence as a 'stunning large old triangular red silk sofa' but if you change the order of words it will come across as very different and almost impossible to understand. Of course, it is unusual to use so many adjectives in one sentence but it is useful to remember the order:

"A remarkable old black-and-white film"

Opinion Age Colour Noun

If you change the words around, the sentence is less coherent:

"An old black-and-white remarkable film"

We cannot explain why the words are ordered in the way that they are, but we hope that you can try and stick to the rules for adjective order whether English is your mother tongue or not.

2. Using capital letters

When it comes to proper nouns, i.e. names of people, places and brands, you should capitalise them: Lord Denning, The Supreme Court, Cambridge University, Test of Legal English Skills.

Job titles require capital letters when you refer to a specific person by their job title, so you should write to the Managing Partner of a law firm or the Chief Executive of Unilever, for example. When you are talking about the job in different contexts, there is no need to capitalise: "the president stated that" or "the lawyer told me in no uncertain terms".

Titles and Headlines

We also use capital letters in titles and headlines and in this case, we will look at essay titles and blog post titles as this is your most likely written work. There is no iron rule for titles, so you can choose whether to use capitals all the way through or mix between upper and lower case. One important caveat is that articles and prepositions should always be in lower case.

"An Exploration of the Evolution of English Law in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries"

"An exploration of the evolution of English law in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries"

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Generally, one should use capital letters for all organisations that refer to themselves with an acronym or abbreviation, but look at the company website to be sure. NASA can also be called Nasa for example and the British Ministery of Defence uses the acronym MoD.

3. How to write the date

There is some confusion as to how to write the date on a letter in the UK. The standard format is DAY-MONTH-YEAR (in the US it is MONTH-DAY-YEAR), but should you write "12 October 2016" or "12th October 2016"? This is a matter of personal preference but nowadays people aim for brevity in language so "12 October 2016" would be the most common way to write the date.

4. Pronunciation of words ending in -ed

Native speakers grow up knowing how to pronounce words but non-native speakers struggle with words ending in -ed. The general rule is that the final sound of the verb indicates how to pronounce the 'ed' ending:

If that final sound is unvoiced - k, sh, ch, p, s etc. - the ED sounds like a strong T sound. (liked, worked, passed, washed) If that final sound is voiced - b, n, l, etc. - the ED sounds like a soft D sound. (cleaned, loved, grabbed)

If that final sound is a T or a D, the ED sounds like ID and creates another syllable. (wanted, needed, headed)

5. Adverbs

Adverbs are an incredibly useful way of offering a more detailed description of something but they can cause confusion as native speakers are more likely to use an adjective rather than an adverb:

Dress warm

Think different

Plays good

However, if we were to follow the grammar rules correctly then we should say this:

Dress warmly

Think differently

Plays well

Which rule should you follow? If you wish to be exact, always follow the rules of grammar but be aware that not all native speakers do this now.

Legal English Language Training teaches English to lawyers, law students and other legal professionals. For further information, telephone (44)0 20 3566 0145 or fill in the form on this screen.

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