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Five rules of English that most British lawyers don't know

Our tutors have recently been working with a growing number of native speaker solicitors and barristers, which might come as a surprise to many readers who might have thought that Legal English UK only works with lawyers who are learning English as a foreign language.


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 people should learn English Grammar

Most native speakers of any language are unlikely to learn too much grammar 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 will all contribute to poor English and a lack of communication skills.


With this in mind, we will take a look at some grammar rules that remain largely unknown to British lawyers but you can teach them next time you meet one.


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 noticeably 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.


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 it is 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 typically people aim for simplicity 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?  The answer is both or neither as they are all acceptable in English and Legal English.


If you have any further examples, please contact us using the form on this page.  


Gareth Price is a writer for Legal English in London and has a degree in law from The University of Aberystwyth in Wales.  He is a practising solicitor who advises Legal English UK on our language courses for lawyers.

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