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Girolamo Tessuto » 3.English Legal Language


English Legal Language, discourse and genre

Legal language: definition
The term legal language “encompasses several usefully distinguishable genres depending upon the communicative purposes they tend to fulfil, the settings or contexts in which they are used, the communicative events or activities they are associated with, the social or professional relationship between the participants taking part in such activities or events, the background knowledge that such participants bring to the situation in which that particular event is embedded and a number of other factors.” (Vijay Bhatia, Analysing Genre. Language Use in Professional Settings, Longman, 1993, at 101)

Bhatia (1993: 101) “identifies several genres used in a variety of legal settings. Some of these are cases and judgments in written form used in juridical settings; lawyer-client consultation, counsel-witness examination in spoken form and legislation, contracts, agreements etc. in written form used in various professional settings.”

What is genre?
Systemic functional linguists, such as John Swales (1990) put genre into the context of discourse community, where it is conceptualised as a “class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognised by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale of the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style.” (Swales, Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, Cambridge, 1990, at 58).

Thus, English Legal Language as it results from a variety of professional genres (written and oral) based on specific communicative purposes, is the language used by the legal discourse community.

English Legal Language


English Legal Language II


English Legal Language III


English Legal Language IV

Tendency towards Plain Legal English

  • Plain language proponents (lawyers, judges and parliamentary draftsmen) are increasingly aware of the formality of traditional English legal writing that arise from the technical complexity of the law.
  • As a result, they argue for clarity, simplicity and directness in the drafting of legislation and other legal documents, because they believe that these documents need to be readily comprehensible to ordinary readers since unnecessary formality in legal drafting can only produce opacity when legal content is conveyed to non-lawyers.
  • For this reason, many plain language proponents have produced a huge volume of English legal drafting guides for use in professional as well as (law school) academic contexts.

English Legal Language V

Tendency towards Plain Legal English

Some of the plain language proposals in current legal English texts may be summarised as follows:

  • “eliminating” archaic and Latin expressions
  • reducing the length of the average sentence
  • including a ‘purposive’ clause or statement at the start of each piece of legislative text which summarizes the purpose of the text in question
  • removing all unnecessary words
  • ensuring that the text can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person from outside the legal profession
  • reducing passive verbal forms by using active constructions wherever this is feasible
  • reducing nominalizations by rephrasing the expression using the original verbal form
  • replacing shall by must or the present simple, or in some cases by may.” (C. Williams, Tradition and Change in Legal English, Bern, 2005, at 177)

English Legal Language VI

Plain Legal English in the EU

  • In the EU, it has become an established practice of European institutions to draft current legal instruments in a way which avoids an old-style legalistic approach in favour of plain language principles.
  • These principles focus on whether a particular piece of EU legislation is wordy, complex in sentences or format.
  • The immediate effect of such principles is to make EU legislative documents readily comprehensible to a variety of European audience (from different political, cultural, and legal backgrounds), for whom important rights and responsibilities are defined. This is an importantaspect of the principle of multilingualism in the drafting of EU documents.

I materiali di supporto della lezione

G. Tessuto, English for Law. A Focus on Legal Concepts and Language, Torino, 2006

Chapter 1 (pp. 13-15)

Chapter 1 (pp. 15-18)

Inroduction (pp. 1-10)

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