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Plain Legal English

Legal documents can be a real bear to understand. They use so many special terms and serpentine phrases. In fact, there is a term to describe these terms: legalese. Don't get me wrong—just as any other profession, there are specific terms and phrases that must be expressed that way. After all, a plaintiff will always be a plaintiff and a defendant a defendant. But what about using words like therein, hereby, pursuant to, shall, witnesseth... and the list goes on. Surely there is a way to pare down and smooth out at least some of this language.

Don't take my word for it—I learned about plain legal English from Bryan Garner, a longstanding attorney and scholar. From his LinkedIn profile:

"Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia, and Garner on Language and Writing, an anthology published by the American Bar Association."

Garner's website is called LawProse, and on it is his blog. I recommend it to anyone working in or studying the field of law. As a direct result, I have improved my legal translation style, jettisoning unnecessary verbiage. I now use shall only if it implies having a duty to do something, in this document instead of herein, and in accordance with or under instead of pursuant to. And the beauty of it all is that Garner gives succinct, well-founded explanations to right the legal writer and send them on their way."

Let's see some examples from the blog:

  • Pursuant to:

"The phrase is pure legalese: it does little more than make legal writers feel lawyerly." Instead use in accordance with, under or as authorized by.

  • Witnesseth is archaic.

"It would make sense, in Elizabethan English, to say, 'He now witnesseth several things' — equivalent to 'He now witnesses several things.'

  • How do you decide which Latin phrases to italicize? (inter alia, res judicata, in toto).

"The answer depends on how thoroughly naturalized the word, abbreviation, or phrase has become in English. If the term has become so commonplace in English that it is said to be 'anglicized', it stays in Roman type; if it’s persistently considered a foreignism, it should be in italics."

As an added bonus for the translator, plain English sounds more neutral and contrary to translations of other fields of knowledge, the translation shall not read like an original because many foreign legal concepts do not exist in common law.

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