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What is Legal English?

By Solomon Branch
Updated May 16, 2024
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Legal English, often referred to as legalese, is the version of the English language that lawyers and others who are involved in the legal profession, such as judges and legislators, use when discussing the law and law-related issues. It is mostly used in written form, such as in the creation of legal documents and laws, and during court proceedings. The use of Legal English dates back, at least in some form, several thousand years.

There are several unique factors that distinguish Legal English from the more common Standard English with which most people are familiar. Although it is based on Standard English, it requires knowledge of very specific terminology particular to the law, a more precise way of speaking, and even some familiarity with Latin and French. It also has several quirks with regard to sentence structure and use of words that to the laymen might seem confusing. For instance, instead of a document saying Mike Jones previously lived there, it might say something like Mike Jones heretofore resided in the aforementioned residence.

Oftentimes, Legal English is needed to make things clearer when Standard English might be ambiguous, hence the use of more specific — albeit complex — words, but it can often be abused. This creates language and communications that are unnecessarily long and confusing. Most of these issues stem from the words used in Legal English, and the way they are put together. Many times two or three words that are redundant are combined together to express something that could be expressed in one word. For instance, a document might use the term null and void instead of just saying invalid>/em>.

Use of these types of phrases, while redundant, are still relatively clear, but they can make documents unnecessarily long and harder to read if there are many of them. Sometimes, words are strung together that, while similar, aren’t exactly the same. This creates the ambiguity that was trying to be avoided in the first place. Use of these words in long and unusually worded sentences, another common feature of Legal English, often adds to the confusion.

Many of the quirks in the use of the modern form stem from its origins. Legal English had its beginnings in pre-historic Britain. Over the centuries, due to wars with French, Latin and Germanic peoples, it transformed into a combination of all of these languages, with many of the terms developed still in use today. The phrase ad hoc, commonly used in legal documents, is Latin. The word tenant is French in origin. Many times in the past, words from different languages would be used together to avoid any uncertainty, a practice that still is used today.

The use of Legal English used to be isolated to countries that had English as their primary language, such as the United Kingdom and the US, but it is now widespread across the globe due to its use in international business. Many schools that previously taught only Standard English now teach the formal Legal form of the language. There are many sites available on the Internet that solely focus on this type of training.

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