January 13, 2004

Plain English

As a lawyer, I regularly have to try to tease some meaning from the "hereinbefores," "wherefores," "shalls," and other assorted legaldegook that other lawyers (and lawyer wannabes) use in their "legal" writing. I'm sorry, but if you're a standard American English speaker, you have no business using the word "shall" in modern usage, except in flippant "what shall do now?" constructions.

And what's with the hereinaboves, hereinbelows, and wheretofores? I majored in German in college, and those constructions are very much alive there. But not in English. Ask someone to write a "legally binding" document and they for some reason start sprinkling "shalls" and "shall nots" like Shakespearean actors.

(That "someone. . . they" construction was intentional, by the way). I actually had a mild debate with another lawyer about this once, who felt that some "grandeur" in legal documents and court pleadings was a good thing. Oh, please.

One of my ongoing missions is to update all of my corporation's forms to use plain, modern English, and to do everything I can to revise other lawyers' forms for style whenever I am forced to use them. One of my key resources is a book by Bryan Garner, a noted authority on legal writing and the English language. Legal Writing in Plain English is one of my bibles (along with the Chicago Manual of Style, Lapsing into a Comma, and the invaluable Strunk and White). Even if you are not a lawyer, these are excellent resources for writers.

If you are interested in matters grammatical, Garner provides a daily usage tip here (where you can also sign up to receive his daily usage tips via email, as I have done).

Posted by JohnL at January 13, 2004 09:34 PM
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