What is Legalese?

Definition and Examples

A lawyer taking notes in a book, sitting at a desk
Legalese is the specialized jargon of lawyers. Robert Daly/Getty Images

Legalese is an informal term for the specialized language (or social dialect) of lawyers and of legal documents. Also known as lawyer's language and legal parlance. Like other specialized language, it relies on specific vocabulary and precise language to convey the particulars of meaning, which may not be fully intelligible to those without specialized legal experience and/or education.

Pronunciation and Origins


The -ese suffix, which denotes adjectival derivatives of locales to describe things, people, and ideas belonging to those places, traces to the Latin suffix -ensis, which means "pertaining to" or "originating in." 

Legal derives from the Latin legalis, meaning "of the law" (lex)

Generally used as a pejorative term for written forms of legal English, legalese is characterized by verbosity, Latin expressions, nominalizations, embedded clauses, passive verbs, and lengthy sentences.

Example: I can't understand most of the terms of service for this app; it's all legalese.

In both the U.K. and the U.S., advocates of plain English have campaigned to reform legalese so that legal documents may become more intelligible to the public.

Examples and Observations

  • "Nothing in the realm of legalese is quite what it seems.
    "Consider the fact that Congress once passed legislation declaring that 'September 16, 1940 means June 27, 1950.' In New Zealand, the law says that a 'day' means a period of 72 hours, while an Australian statute defines 'citrus fruit' to include eggs. To American lawyers, a 22-year-old document is 'ancient,' while a 17-year-old person is an 'infant.' At one time or another, the law has defined 'dead person' to include nuns, 'daughter' to include son, and 'cow' to include horse; it has even declared white to be black.
    "At times, legalese appears to be almost willfully perverse. Standard legal agreements, for example, typically contain some version of the following clause: The masculine shall include the feminine, the singular shall include the plural, and the present tense shall include the past and future tense. In other words, the law sees absolutely no difference between 'the boy becomes a man' and 'girls will be girls.'"
    (Adam Freedman, The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese. Henry Holt, 2007)
  • "[L]egalese often has the virtue of eliminating ambiguity, and should be read more as a mathematical equation than as prose, anything herein to the contrary notwithstanding."
    (William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary, rev. ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 2008)

Why Legalese Is "Doubly Demeaning"

  • "Fog in the law and legal writing is often blamed on the complex topics being tackled. Yet when legal texts are closely examined, their complexity seems to arise far less from this than from unusual language, tortuous sentence construction, and disorder in the arrangement of points. So the complexity is largely linguistic and structural smoke created by poor writing practices.
  • "Legalese is one of the few social evils that can be eradicated by careful thought and disciplined use of a pen. It is doubly demeaning: first it demeans its writers, who seem to be either deliberately exploiting its power to dominate or are at best careless of its effects; and second it demeans its readers by making them feel powerless and stupid."
    (Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)

"The Mad, Mad World of Legal Writing"

  • "[A]n American Bar Foundation study found in 1992 that employers believe that the biggest problem with recent law graduates is that they don't know how to write. And the graduates themselves say that writing is the part of their jobs that their legal education has least equipped them to do competently (let alone artfully, easily, beautifully). . . .
    "Those who see legal writing as being simply a matter of cleaning up grammar and punctuation, as well as learning citation form, grossly misunderstand what the field should be. Good writing results from good, disciplined thinking. To work on your writing is to improve your analytical skills."
    (Bryan A. Garner, "The Mad, Mad World of Legal Writing." Garner on Language and Writing. American Bar Association, 2009)

Bryan A. Garner on Good Legal Writing

  • "Whenever you write, whether you know it or not, you're answering a question: what do you sound like? You might be stuffy (many legal writers are), whiny, defensive, aloof, or chummy. You probably don't want to be any of those things.
    "Generally, the best approach in writing is to be relaxed and natural. That bespeaks confidence. It shows that you're comfortable with your written voice.
    "It's worth remembering, as the late Second Court Judge Jerome Frank once put it, that the primary appeal of the language is to the ear. Good writing is simply speech heightened and polished."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What is Legalese?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/legalese-language-term-1691107. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What is Legalese? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/legalese-language-term-1691107 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Legalese?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/legalese-language-term-1691107 (accessed June 2, 2023).