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On Legal English



Idiomatic Expression Idioms, Definite Article, English Expression, English Expressions

Legal English – There is no gainsaying that other languages have contributed significantly to the development of the English language.

These contributions have birthed a branch of English called legal English. French and Latin were the major contributors to legal English: French through the institutionalisation of the language as the language of the court and Latin through its former status as the language used in official documents (Crystal and Davy 1969).

Tiersma (2008) cites examples of the influence of French on legal English in words such as guilt, manslaughter, murder, oath, and witness, and Latin in words such as versus and caveat emptor. Butt (2001) described legal English as “unashamedly archaic” and established that some of the words in legal English are now lost in everyday language. Some of these words that have been lost include herein, therein, and whereas.


The development of this English sub-language led to the coining of the term “legalese,” which was first used in 1914, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The term “legalese” is used to describe a category of English which has proved to be difficult for users of the language, who are not under the legal jurisdiction or who have little or no knowledge of the legal language. This implies that it is almost impossible for someone who is not a professional in the legal field to read and understand what is being said in a legal document. Will Rogers, a vaudeville performer, actor and humorous social commentator said, “The minute you read something and you can’t understand it, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.” This explains how difficult it can be to understand legal writing.

However, lawyers ought to understand that legal documents are primarily not written for lawyers alone. Han (2013) posited that civil judgements have two types of target audiences. The first audience comprises those who are specialists in the legal field, and the second is made up of those who are non-specialists. From his analysis, non-specialists are only able to understand court decisions in the judgements and are left in a place of confusion concerning the prior parts of these rulings. This exemplifies that there is a limitation in communication because of the huge gap between legal language and “everyday language” or “plain language.”


Everyday language should not be mistaken for language used in its non-standard form in a bid to achieve informality. Bamgbose (2016) established that everyday language has a high and rich linguistic structure and that only those with a level of familiarity with the language can effectively understand its expression.

The difference between legal language and everyday language or plain language is effective communication. It does not just involve reading or listening to what is being communicated but also understanding the exact message that the speaker or writer intends to convey. Butt (2001) emphasised that everyday language should not satisfy the writer’s needs, but the readers’ needs. This is a major issue with the complexity of legal English. Tiersma (2008, 1) posited that members of the legal profession are “among the most eloquent users” of the language, and they are also “its most notorious abusers.”

Scholars like Francis Butt have expressed that lawyers are reluctant to switch from the traditional way of writing these documents for reasons ranging from inertia (the apathy to abandon the old ways of doing things), necessity (the hankering to write perfectly using a template and avoid loopholes or escape clauses), and insecurity (the bid to avoid costly risks) (Butt 2001).


These reasons are why this change has proved difficult, but it is certainly not impossible. It will take a long time for a proper orientation which is among the awareness this article sets out to create.
Foreign expressions such as “prima facie” (superficial or face value), “writ of mandamus” (an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfil his/her official duties or correct an abuse of discretion) and “subpoena” (a legal document telling someone that he/she must attend a court of law and give evidence as a witness) should be given simpler and easier synonyms considering the importance and need to transmit legal judgements.

Other jargon, such as misdemeanours (simple or less serious offences), codicil (an amendment to a will), die intestate (to die without a will) and alibi (a claim or piece of evidence that one was elsewhere when an act, especially a criminal one, is alleged to have taken place), also needs more easily accessible vocabulary.

In conclusion, this piece establishes that legal English is a complex instance of language use. Given the importance of legal findings and judgements for the citizenry, there has to be a deliberate attempt on the part of legal practitioners to make their language more easily understandable.



(c) 2023

Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.

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