Bad Language

If only I was going to write about swearing.  In fact, I wanted to vent a bit about the unnecessary complication of language that seems to surround lawyers and the law.  In some cases, lawyers use language that is purposefully unclear.  In others, the legalization of language just makes it sound stupid and complex.  In light of the interest in improving access to justice, clarity is a benefit.

First Rule:  Be Understood

I’ve studied a number of languages, Latin among them.  Even before I was introduced to the smattering of legal phrases that continue on in their Latin forms, I had a bit of a handle on the rudiments of the language.  But I don’t use it.

I also don’t expect others to use it seeing as all of my communication is in English.  When I first got to Canada, I remember seeing lacuna in a document.  I figured it was a typo.  No.  It was a 6 letter Latin word for a 3 letter English one (gap).

When I wrote my books, the publisher’s contact came with the phrase mutatis mutandis.  This one was new to me and I asked the publisher to replace it with plain English, which they did.  I realize there is sometimes a tension between a legal meaning of a word and its plain meaning.  However, these sorts of shorthand seem to benefit lawyers more than they benefit others who have to signal an understanding of a document.

Keep It Simple

I groan inwardly when I hear someone say per se.  In most cases, a foreign phrase can be converted online or in a dictionary to mean something in your own language.  It seems to be a preference to sound less intelligible but more intelligent to forego our own language’s words for those used by lawyers.  It always seems to be people trying to sound more exact or more legalistic, while lawyers are being told to speak more like normal people.

Somethings are colonial holdovers, in Canada anyway.  Many people seem to use the term precis instead of the one-syllable longer summary.  I figure it’s a word that came over and stuck among certain classes or types of workers.

Others are harder to understand.  We were waiting at a public school for a music concert and across from us was a sliding door.  Many of you will know it as an elevator.  But there was a sign next to it that had information on how to operate the elevating device.


That’s what the legislators call it.  They don’t have rules around elevators, but around elevating devices.  The term covers a wide variety of things.  But if you’re the person putting a sign outside an elevator, why not just use the term elevator since it’s clear the user isn’t going to choose between it and a chair lift?

It’s all around us.  Our train stopped the other day – well, to be honest, it stops every day for about 5 minutes in the same place, not that I’m disgruntled by that or anything – and we had to wait.  A disembodied voice came over the address system and said we were waiting for a permissive signal before we moved forward.

You mean a green light?

Even if you didn’t, that’s the vernacular version.  Or you might choose something like we are waiting for a signal.  Particularly in tight financial times, you’d think we’d stick with our nickel words rather than spending the half-dollar ones all the time, willy nilly.

I like apps like WordRake or Hemingway for helping people use simpler language.  We can all do better.  It’s not hard to find simple ways to make sure what we communicate is likely to be understood.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.