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What Is Legalese?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2014
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Legalese is the writing style used by attorneys and legal scholars when communicating about legal matters in documents ranging from contracts to scholarly papers. It is an example of technical writing, a type of writing used by people in a specific profession to communicate with other members of the profession. Like other technical writing, legalese can be difficult for laypeople to understand because it assumes a certain level of knowledge with legal concepts and the legal system. This is criticized by some people in the case of communications that members of the public will have to interact with, like sales contracts.

Several features can be seen in legalese. The first is the very careful word use. In law, words have very specific and clearly defined meanings, and lawyers are careful when drafting legal documents to say precisely what they mean, even if the meaning is only apparent to other lawyers. Some of the word use may appear unusual to people who aren't familiar with the law, as ordinary words can have a different meaning in a legal context. For example, seemingly redundant phrasing actually isn't, when the legal meanings of the phrase are considered.

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Legalese also includes a number of professional terms, including Latin terms, although there has been a push in some areas of the legal community to replace Latin with plain language for clarity. Legal documents also rely heavily on sourcing and citation, showing a legal basis for all of the statements being made. Precedent, the established and accepted component of legal practice, is an important part of law and legal documents that do break precedent must still include substantial supporting arguments for the break with tradition.

This form of writing also tends to be highly formal. The formality is in part a result of the meticulous word choices and phrasing used, and in part a convention of the legal profession. Other technical writing also tends to formality, as people tend to be taken less seriously when they write informally or colloquially. Members of the legal profession do occasionally break with tradition; several Supreme Court justices, for example, have written opinions incorporating rhyming couplets and other whimsical inclusions.

In some regions, consumer advocacy organizations have argued for the replacement of legalese with plain text in documents read by members of the public. This is in response to concerns about people who sign contracts and other legal documents without fully understanding their meaning. A legalese to plain text translation of a sort is recommended in some settings, allowing lawyers to draft a legally enforceable contract while including a clear explanation understandable to laypeople so they know what they are agreeing to by signing the contract.

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