Plain English for Lawyers

Richard C. Wydick
1978 California Law Review  
We lawyers cannot write plain English. We use eight words to say what could be said in two. We use old, arcdne phrases to express commonplace ideas. Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose. Our sentences twist on, phrase within clause within clause, glazing the eyes and numbing the minds of our readers. The result is a writing style that has, according to one critic, four outstanding characteristics. It is: "(1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous, and
more » ... 4) dull." ' Criticism of lawyers' writing is nothing new. In 1596 an English chancellor decided to make an example of a particularly prolix document filed in his court. The chancellor first ordered a hole cut through the center of the document, all 120 pages of it. Then he ordered that the person who wrote it should have his head stuffed through the hole, and the unfortunate fellow was led around to be exhibited to all those attending court at Westminster Hall. 2 When the common law was transplanted to America, the writing style of the old English lawyers came with it. In 1817 Thomas Jefferson lamented that in drafting statutes his fellow lawyers were accustomed to "making every other word a 'said' or 'aforesaid,' and saying everything over two or three times, so that nobody but we of the craft can untwist the diction, and find out what it means. .... "3 In recent times criticism of lawyers' writing has taken on a new intensity. The popular press castigates lawyers for the "frustration, outrage, or despair" a consumer feels when trying to puzzle through an insurance policy or installment loan agreement. 4 President
doi:10.2307/3479966 fatcat:e6a7uyw4nbb5jhgwfhgdorplvq