June 3


What are the Characteristics of Legal Language?

What is Legal English?

What is legal language?

Legal language, often referred to as "legalese," is a specialized form of English used by legal professionals in various jurisdictions. This blog post explores the unique characteristics of legal language, aiming to help ESL lawyers better understand and navigate this often complex form of communication. The characteristics discussed here are crucial for anyone involved in the legal profession, as they significantly influence how laws are interpreted and applied.

Precision and Formality

One of the primary features of legal language is its precision. Every word must convey an exact meaning to avoid ambiguity in legal texts such as contracts, statutes, and judgments. Legal language often relies on established terms and phrases that have been defined by centuries of legal practice, ensuring that they are interpreted consistently over time.

Formality is another cornerstone. Legal documents are written in a formal style, which helps maintain professionalism and seriousness in legal proceedings. This formality is maintained through the use of specific phrases and constructs, some of which can be quite archaic but are retained for their clarity and legal significance.

Complexity and Verbosity

Legal language is notoriously complex. This complexity arises from the need to cover every possible aspect of an agreement to prevent loopholes that could be exploited. As a result, legal documents often contain long, intricate sentences, with numerous clauses that can make documents difficult to read and understand for those not familiar with legal diction.

Verbosity, or the use of more words than necessary, is also a characteristic of legal language. While sometimes criticized for making documents less accessible, verbosity can serve a purpose by adding clarity and detail to ensure all potential issues are addressed, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

Use of Jargon and Latin Phrases

Legal jargon consists of specific terms that have precise meanings within the context of the law. These terms can be confusing for those without legal training, and for ESL individuals, they present an additional layer of difficulty. Common examples include "tort" (a wrongful act leading to legal liability), "indemnify" (compensate for harm or loss), and "estoppel" (preventing someone from arguing something contrary to a claim they have previously made).

Latin phrases
also play a significant role in legal language, reflecting the historical influence of Roman law on legal systems. Phrases like "habeas corpus" (requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court) and "ex post facto" (laws applied retroactively) are still commonly used to express complex ideas succinctly.

Precision in Punctuation and Syntax

In legal writing, even punctuation carries weight. The placement of a comma can alter the meaning of a statute significantly, potentially affecting the outcomes of cases. Similarly, the syntax in legal documents is highly structured to ensure clarity and precision in interpretation.


Ambiguity: Uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language.
Loophole: An ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules.
Tort: A wrongful act or an infringement of a right leading to legal liability.
Indemnify: Compensate for harm or loss.
Estoppel: A legal principle that prevents someone from arguing something contrary to a previous claim or behavior.
Jargon: Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.
Verbosity: The quality of using more words than needed.

Understanding these characteristics and terms is crucial for ESL lawyers as they navigate through the complexities of legal documents and interactions in their professional environments. Mastery of legal language not only enhances comprehension but also empowers non-native speakers to participate more effectively in legal proceedings.

What are your thoughts on Legalese?

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English, Legal English

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