What Is Legal English?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Style Guide for Lawyers

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The specialized variety (or occupational register) of the English language used by lawyers and in legal documents is called legal English.

As David Mellinkoff has noted, legal English includes "distinctive words, meanings, phrases, and modes of expression" (The Language of the Law, 1963).

A pejorative term for abstruse forms of legal English is legalese.

Examples and Observations

  • "I know you lawyers can with ease
    Twist words and meanings as you please;
    That language, by your skill made pliant,
    Will bend to favour every client." (John Gay, "The Dog and the Fox." Fables, 1727 and 1738)
  • "So, you might speak English, but can you understand what goes on in court? Actually, it is likely that many people will understand most, in not all, of the talk that is addressed directly to them... In spoken legal contexts the legal vocabulary and sentence structures typically occur in talk between lawyers and judges: it is a kind of 'insiders' language,' similar to the way in which computer technicians might discuss your computer problems, in their specialised register, in front of you." (Diana Eades, "Using English in the Legal Process." The Routledge Companion to English Language Studies, ed. by Janet Maybin and Joan Swann. Routledge, 2010)

What Makes Legal Language Difficult?

"One of the main reasons why legal language is sometimes difficult to understand is that it is often very different from ordinary English. This comprises two issues:

1. The writing conventions are different: sentences often have apparently peculiar structures, punctuation is used insufficiently, foreign phrases are sometimes used instead of English phrases (e.g. ​inter alia instead of among others), unusual pronouns are employed (the same, the aforesaid, etc.), and unusual set phrases are to be found (null and void, all and sundry).
2. A large number of difficult words and phrases are used."

(Rupert Haigh, Legal English, 2nd ed. Routledge-Cavendish, 2009)

Legal Doublets

  • "It must have been quite hard, being a lawyer in the Middle Ages in England. Originally, all your law books would have been in Latin. Then, in the 13th century, they start being written in French. Then along comes English. Lawyers had a problem. When they wanted to talk about a legal issue, which words should they use?... If someone decided to leave all his property and possessions to a relative, should the legal document talk about his goods, using the Old English word, or his chattels, using the Old French word? The lawyers thought up an ingenious solution. They would use both... A large number of legal doublets were created in this way, and some of them became so widely known that they entered everyday English. Every time we say fit and proper or wrack and ruin we are recalling a legal mix of English and French. Peace and quiet combines French and Latin. Will and testament combines English and Latin... The pattern caught on. After a while, lawyers began to bring together pairs of words from the same language. To avoid a dispute over whether cease meant the same as desist (both words are from French), they simply said that someone should cease and desist." (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)
  • "You must not argue there [in court], as if you were arguing in the schools; close reasoning will not fix their attention--you must say the same thing over and over again, in different words. If you say it but once, they miss it in a moment of inattention. It is unjust, sir, to censure lawyers for multiplying words when they argue; it is often necessary for them to multiply words."(Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

National Varieties of Legal English

  • "The American colonies rejected many things British when they won their independence. Yet they retained the common law system, including the notion of precedent. Despite reservations by some prominent Americans, most notably Thomas Jefferson, they also continued to use the legal language associated with that system. Thus modern English lawyers can understand American lawyers fairly well, and vice versa. Yet in some important respects, the British and American legal systems have diverged, producing what are arguably differing dialects of legal English (Tiersma 1999: 43-7). In contrast to the United States, countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand broke away from the United Kingdom much later, and as a result their legal languages are closer to that of England." (Peter M. Tiersma, "A History of the Languages of Law." Language and Law, ed. by Peter M. Tiersma and Lawrence M. Solan. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Legal English?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-legal-english-1691106. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Legal English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-legal-english-1691106 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Legal English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-legal-english-1691106 (accessed June 6, 2023).