February 18, 2013Line Editing
Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, but fortunately not one in the cringing tradition of hedging, caveating, and overparticularizing every detail in the fear of leaving something out. Had Lincoln been more like too many lawyers today, the opening sentence of the Gettsyburg Address may have been written in legalese, as follows:
On or about July 4, 1776, John Hancock, Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross, George Read, Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton (hereinafter “our fathers”), constituting a majority of the Second Continental Congress, caused to be issued a Declaration to the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which commenced certain legal and extralegal proceedings ultimately culminating in the creation on the North American continent of a new nation, viz., the United States of America (hereinafter “United States”), which nation was conceived in due relation to various states or qualities including, without limitation, liberty, and was dedicated, inter alia, to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Legalese properly refers to all of the stylistic elements of legal documents that make them sound like legal documents. Most—perhaps all—of the elements that make up “legalese” obstruct comprehension, obscure meaning, and confuse the reader.
Don’t waste time being specific about dates that don’t need to be stated with precision. Unless your motion depends on how many days elapsed between two events, full dates are normally a distraction. “Six months ago” or “last week” is probably better. If you do give a full date, with day, month, and year, be bold enough not to quibble about it: don’t say “on or about.” Don’t burden your reader’s mind with unnecessary lists of entities. If you are filing a motion, for example, on behalf of some but not all of the plaintiffs or defendants in a matter, you can probably list them just once, and certainly not in your opening paragraph unless a rule requires you to do so. Otherwise, don’t bother; nobody is going to be confused about who you mean by “Plaintiffs” or “Jones” or “IBM.” And don’t hedge your language with terms like “including,” or “not limited to,” or “inter alia” unless you have an excellent reason to do so. Caveats make your writing sound uncertain, slippery, and untrustworthy.
Above all, whenever your sentences become long, dry, abstract, boring, full of commas, and hard to follow, they need a rewrite:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Here is a full version of the Gettysburg Address in legalese.