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Why is Legal English different from General English?

Legal phrasing derives from a mix of old French, Latin, old English and old Norse (Viking language). This is largely thanks to 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.

Examples

Here are two sentences that say the same thing but in different ways:

“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 stipulation to dismiss the case which I have signed.”

While it is a significantly easier sentence, it does not sound so impressive. This is perhaps another reason why British and American lawyers tend to use legalese — they sometimes 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.

Campaign

The Plain English Campaign has been attempting to get lawyers to tidy up their use of these terms. Personally, I 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 so many years of habit.

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Legal English Blog


Originally published at www.legalenglish.co.uk.