Each profession has its own jargon but most professions rely on modern English as their base. Real estate and other transactional lawyers, those who draft legal documents, seem to be the exception. This is a strange phenomenon since most litigators, those attorneys who write only for fellow lawyers (i.e., judges), seem to have little problem writing in modern English. However, most real estate and other transactional lawyers whose work-product involves nonlawyer parties, usually find it difficult to express their thoughts in modern English. Instead, they rely on a strange language referred to as “legalese” to convey their message.
Merriam-Webster defines “legalese” as follows: “the language used by lawyers that is difficult for most people to understand; legal jargon.”1 The Oxford Guide to Plain English describes it somewhat differently:
“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.”2
William Safire, a former op-ed columnist with The New York Times, describes it more humorously: “[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.”3
Legalese is a language that relies on archaic language, poor grammar and sentence structure, repetition, surplus language, and legal jargon. The predicate for use of legalese seems to be that the parties will be represented by attorneys, and their attorneys will understand the documents even if their clients cannot. Although such an assumption may assist in promoting legal employment, it appears no more defensible than having legal documents written in Arabic in reliance on the parties using persons familiar with Arabic to explain the contents of the documents to their clients. Since legal documents will govern the rights and obligations of the parties for whom they are written, it seems only proper that such parties should be able to read and understand them. The use of legalese has been criticized by the courts: “[This is a] document checked full of legalese that can make a Byzantine scholar proud.”4
Some legalisms seem to be going out of vogue. Does anyone use “the party of the first part” and “the party of the second part” to reference the parties to an agreement? Use of these terms allows the drafter to avoid identifying the parties throughout the document, but to an untrained reader, it may be unclear which party is obligated to which obligations under the agreement.
Other terms seem to have survived the transition from the age of the bow and arrow to that of automatic weapons. Many drafters continue to use terms like “witnesseth” and recitals preceded by the term “whereas.” Frequently, last paragraphs in agreements conclude with “In witness whereof.” One may well wonder if such drafters think it is essential their documents look like legal proclamations intended to be admissible in the English courts of the 14th century or be in a form sufficient to be affixed to the nearest tree. And what about title affidavits that conclude with the phrase “further affiant sayeth naught”? This last phrase adds nothing to the affidavit that a period at the end of the preceding sentence would add, but it does perhaps provide the drafter with the comforting feeling that the affidavit is a “legal document.”
Attorneys do not seem to question why is it necessary to use language from the age of Shakespeare to express their thoughts. Such archaic language is nowhere else found in modern writing, and it surely does not improve the readability of the document in which it is contained.
Another tenet of legalese involves repeating numbers with Arabic characters and in words. It might not be necessary to provide for “a ten (10) day notice” rather than “a 10-day notice” but a reader seeing both the character and word will appreciate that he or she is reading a legal document. This has been referred to as the “stupid reader syndrome” since it appears to be predicated on the assumption that the reader will not be able to understand a number if it is only mentioned once. A danger, however, of this needless repetition sometimes appears in documents when the character and word do not match, e.g., “ten (15) day period,” which presents an interpretive problem as to which number is correct. This needless repetition is so engrained in the legal vocabulary that a request to a legal secretary to transmit two copies of a survey will appear as “enclosed are two (2) copies of the survey.”
Perhaps the hallmark of a legal document is the inclusion of “h” words. The words “herein,” “hereto,” “hereof,” and “hereinafter” are the staples of drafting in legalease. These words, other than “hereinafter,” defy precision because it is never clear whether they are referencing a particular paragraph, section, or the entire agreement. Typically the use of such language requires the drafter to add a separate definitional section to clarify their meaning because of their latent ambiguity. You will not see these words used in common parlance or even in nonfiction writing except perhaps the use of “hereinafter” referencing an existence beyond the grave. But these words are typically liberally sprinkled throughout a document serving as a beacon to identify the document: “This is a legal document!”
Another frequent device for drafting in legalese is the use of the expression “provided, however, that….” This phrase serves to introduce an exclusion to the immediately previously expressed idea. Although one may substitute a period for this entire phrase and follow with the start of a new sentence with the same effect, the use of this term allows the draftsperson to establish his or her credentials as a lawyer and, as a side benefit, permits drafting run-on sentences galore. One can test the elimination of this phrase by substituting a period before “provided, however, that…” and determine its absence has no effect on the meaning of the paragraph but only serves to increase its readability.
Legalese embraces repetition: one word is good; six words are better. Why refer to the “provisions” or “terms” of an agreement when you can mention the “terms, provisions, covenants, agreements, representations, and warranties” of an agreement? Would anyone without legal “training” think that the terms of an agreement would not include any representations, warranties, or covenants in the agreement? I think not, but verbosity is a preferred drafting technique.
Another form of repetition frequently utilized is couplets: two words used in conjunction when a single word will convey the same message. Frequently used couplets include: “terms and provisions,” “good and valuable,” “covenants and agreements,” “free and clear,” “each and every,” and “any and all.” Many attorneys sprinkle these liberally into their drafting so the reader will understand the document was drafted by a lawyer.
Related to repetition is the inclusion of unnecessary extra language. In referring to exhibits and schedules in a document, the drafter will frequently qualify such exhibits or schedules with the phrase “attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference.” It is not clear whether such a phrase has any legal effect. Would a reader think that an exhibit or schedule appearing at the end of a document and referenced in the document might be a stapling error? That is, it was never intended to be part of the agreement. Or that such documents were merely attached to the document to increase its length?
The use of legalese is perpetuated by reuse of form documents replete with legalese. New lawyers instructed to use form documents are inculcated into the use of archaic language, repetition, and run-on sentences. It has been noted that there is no economic incentive to “clean up” these documents by spending extra time merely for the sake of readability.5 Even lawyers conscious of the use of legalese frequently avoid removing such language in the haste to produce a document for distribution. Will Rodgers famously noted, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
There is a perception among new lawyers, and even among seasoned lawyers, that writing in plain English dumbs down the language of the instruments. This is surely the case in some consumer forms in substituting “I” and “you” for “buyer” and “seller.” However, in response, it has been noted that:
“[W]riting in plain English need not mean giving up sophisticated use of language and affecting a chatty informality. On the contrary, it requires sophistication to produce documents that are consistently coherent, clear and readable. By contrast, this “specialized tongue” of lawyers, “legalese,” may even be easier to write because it relies on convention instead of thought. At best, however, the result is wordy, pompous, and dull. At worst it is unintelligible.”6
Does legalese really improve the content? As an example of how legalese affects readability, below are two short paragraphs. The first is written in English and the second re-written in legalese.
Jim had the flu and went to see Dr. Jones. The doctor told Jim he would be better in 10 days if Jim stayed home, drank liquids, and slept for eight hours each night. If his condition did not improve by the end of 10 days, the doctor said he would prescribe antibiotics.” Jim had the flu (hereinafter referred to as the “Disease”) and went to see Dr. Jones (hereinafter referred to as the “Doctor”) and the Doctor told Jim that Jim would be better in ten (10) days, provided, however, that (i) Jim stayed home, (ii) Jim drank liquids, and (iii) Jim slept eight (8) hours each night (hereinafter collectively referred to as the “Remedial Conditions”) and provided further that if by the expiration of said ten (10) day period and full and complete fulfillment of the Remedial Conditions the Disease was not fully or partially abated to the full and complete satisfaction of the Doctor, in the Doctor’s sole and unfettered discretion, then the Doctor would prescribe antibiotics.
In a survey in 1988 sent to 1,116 Florida judges and lawyers selected at random that contained six phrases written in two different styles without identifying legalese but only a “test of language trends in the legal profession,” the preparer of the survey received 628 responses: 352 came from judges and 279 from lawyers. The judges preferred plain English in 86 percent of their responses and the lawyers in 80 percent.7
The courts have been critical of the use of legalese.8 Is there any downside to use of such language? If ordinary individuals not represented by an attorney are intended to be bound by legal instruments not otherwise decipherable as written in the English language, courts have refused to enforce such agreements to the detriment of the drafters.9
Beyond the issue of enforcement, why is it necessary to draft documents far removed from common English? Why does the poor use of the English language with run-on sentences and unnecessary repetition make a document legal? In surveys of judges and attorneys, the overwhelming percentage of respondents opted for plain English over legalese.10
Any real estate attorney believing use of legalese is benign should be ordered to review and decipher language appearing in many securitized financing documents. There are numerous examples in such documents when one sentence can run an entire page.11 It is frequently impossible to understand the content of any provision with a single reading.
Consumer groups have been struggling for years to require consumer documents to be written in plain English. Since the world outside of the legal profession operates using plain English, it is difficult to justify using a different language to create enforceable legal rights and obligations. In some cases, the reward for using legalese is an unenforceable agreement.12
This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of The Florida Bar Journal, Volume 91, No. 4.