Day: May 28, 2014

Tips from the Editor – Legalese Gobbledygook – The Need for Clarity in Legal Writing

Posted on Updated on

By Kelly Laycockeditor1a

After months of bickering, a divorce lawyer completes negotiations with the other side and calls his client with the good news.

“So what did you work out?” George asks the lawyer.

“Well, what it boils down to is that the party of the first part, to wit, George Smith, shall convey to the party of the second part and to her heirs and assigns forever fee simple to the matrimonial estate, including all property real and personal and all chattels appurtenant thereto.”

“I don’t get any of that,” George muttered.

“That’s right.” 1

Latin terms, legal jargon, run-on sentences littered with convoluted modifiers … for a member of the public, it is a confusing endeavor to wade through what is commonplace for lawyers and legal professionals, as the joke above shows. Access to justice has been a very hot topic in the legal world, and to help the public better understand their rights and responsibilities, it seems that a good place to start would be to replace antiquated legal jargon with plain language.

One of the great paradoxes about the legal profession is that lawyers are, on the one hand, among the most eloquent users of the English language while, on the other, they are perhaps its most notorious abusers. –Peter Tiersma, The Nature of Legal Language

The Copyeditor’s Handbook (my personal Bible, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) tells us that “A writer’s word choices set the tone for a piece (formal, informal, colloquial) … Word choice also gives cues to the readers about the author’s conception of them. Shop talk, jargon, and lingo should be reserved for publications aimed at a specialized audience that is familiar with the argot.” 2 It is a common practice of editors, marketers and communication professionals of all types to tailor their writing style to their audience. For example, if you are writing for an academic crowd who understand a certain level of specialized language, or jargon, on a specific topic, then a switch to plain language would sound patronizing or condescending. Read the rest of this entry »