The term “legal” simply refers to anything
related to law, lawyers and court.
The first question coming to the mind is
“What is, in terms of both stylistics and
linguistics, the study object of the legal
The answers may be miscellaneous, but they
have one idea in common – “…the nature,
functions and consequences of language use
in the negotiation of social order.”
Law has two primary functions.
◦ ordering human relations
◦ restoring social order in cases it breaks
Furthermore, by law people are told which
activities are permitted and which are not,
it helps create relations where none existed
The second question posed by many
professionals is which of the terms of dialect,
register or sublanguage is the most relevant.
Danet (ibid: 275) puts forward her view and
believes that legal language is so distinct and
differentiated that it is possible to call it a
separate dialect or sublanguage.
However, she prefers to label it a register due
to her conviction that “register is mainly a
matter of formality” (ibid).
The field of legal documents covers a wide
range: statutes, decrees, legal provisions,
economic contracts, commodity warranty,
deeds of trust, insurance policies, wills and
testaments, leases and installment plans, etc.
Yet all of these have one and the same
functional tenor: They are concerned with
imposing of obligations and conferring of
And their personal tenor is the same--very
formal, even dignified.
In terms of mode, all of them are recorded in a
written form being essentially a visual
language meant to be scrutinized in silence.
Though, for instance, court trial is
conducted in spoken form, the language
used at court shares much with the
characteristics of written legal documents.
In order to ensure that a document says
exactly what it is meant to say, and leaves
no chance for misinterpretation, composers
of the document will take the greatest pains
to make it communicate just one set of
meanings and avoid any possible ambiguity.
◦ the composers‘ reliance on established
◦ their reluctance to adopt new and untested
modes of expression,
and owing to some historical reasons,
legal English appears extremely conservative
and presents some striking oddities in
◦ form and
The legal genre, which has a well-
established status in sublanguage studies,
includes a variety of texts and situational
Within the legal genre there are ‘internal’
functional sub-genres, such as statutes,
conventions, contracts with their numerous
sub-categories, wills, case reports, etc.
The underlying notion is that genre refers
to some patterned recurrent form or
In prehistoric Britain, traditional common law
was discussed in the language since time
The legal language and legal tradition
changed with influence of conquerors over
the following centuries.
Roman Britain (after the conquest beginning
in AD 43) followed Roman legal tradition, and
its legal language was Latin.
Then the Roman departure from Britain and the
Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, the dominant
tradition was instead Anglo-Saxon law, which was
discussed in the Germanic language (Anglo-Saxon,
Old English), and written in Old English.
The Norman invasion of England in 1066, Anglo-
Norman French became the official language of legal
proceedings in England for a period of nearly 300
years, while Latin was used for written records for
over 650 years.
In legal pleadings, Anglo-Norman urbanized into Law
French, from which many words in modern legal
English are resulting. These include property, estate,
chattel, lease, executor, and tenant.
The use of Law French during this period has an
enduring influence on the general linguistic register of
modern legal English.
It also gives idea for some of the complex linguistic
structures engaged in legal writing.
In 1363, the Statute of Pleading was enacted, which
stated that all legal proceedings be conducted in
English (but recorded in Latin).
This marked the beginning of formal Legal
English; Law French continued to be used in some
forms into the 17th century, though it became
From 1066, Latin was the language of formal
proceedings and statutes, being replaced by
However, since only the learned were smooth in
Latin, it never became the language of legal
pleading or debate.
The influence of Latin can be seen in a number of
words and phrases such as ad hoc, de facto, bona
fide, inter alia, and ultra vires, which remain in
current use in legal writing.
On a basis of systematic studies on the legal
register, an outline based on
Danet (1985:279-286) and
of the linguistic/stylistic features typical of
legal language may be given as follows.
Technical Terms – every profession and
occupation is typical of its special technical
vocabulary, or “terms of art” as warranty deed,
criminal proceedings, Procurator Fiscal,
Common Terms with Uncommon Meanings –
the legal register uses familiar words but with
uncommon meanings, e.g. “assignment” does
not mean a “task or duty”, or “something
assigned”, but it means the “transference of a
right, interest or title”; also the use of shall
refers very frequently not to the future but to
an obligation or duty.
Like all other specialists, lawyers also have a set
of technical terms at their own disposal.
A number of common words have been
converted into technical terms with only one of
their meanings kept in the legal text. For
instance, in legal texts,
◦ instance refers to a formal legal document,
◦ deed refers to a signed and usually sealed
document containing some legal transfer,
bargain or contract,
◦ principal means a corpus of estate, etc
typically, legal documents are abundant in
items such as hereinafter, hereto, hereby,
hereof, aforesaid, whosoever, thereof,
These originate in Old English and, “may have
originally been introduced as ambiguity
resolving elements or means of abbreviation”
Furthermore, they add to the degree of
formality of legal documents.
In order to render the legal documents highly
formal and dignified, lawyers often employ
words and phrases that are unique to this
Words like herein, hereto, hereof, hereinafter,
hereby, hereinabove, hereon, heretofore,
thereafter, thereby, thereinafter, thereof,
thereto, there-under, whereby, whereof where-
on ; phrases like forever in fee simple, in
witness whereof, legally selected and
possessed of, of sound and disposing mind, at
the time of my death, upon his official bond ,
ere, are well studded in legal documents;
they are either unique to legal English or are
endowed with a strong legal flavor.
Other archaism-looking words such as (This
LEASE...) WITNESSETH , (its) duly (authorized
officer), (my Commission) Expires (this__ day
of__, 19__, (the) Executrix (of this my Will),
outright (if she is living at the time of my
death), (we hereby) attest (to our belief), (the)
testator , and so on also present a degree of
More use of Romance than Germanic words
Owing to the extensive borrowing of French legal
terminology after the Conquest, the French
vocabulary is extremely large.
Those from French are state, insurance, company,
agree, insured, declarations, payment, premium,
reliance, statements, terms, policy, note, liability,
agreements, coverage, property, sums, pay,
damage (s), caused, accident,, attorneys, suit,
alleging, allegations, claim , etc
and those directly of Latin origin are type, section,
injury, obligated, including, vehicle, selected,
compensated, negotiations, etc.
they are also referred to as word pairs.
Many of them root in the Norman Period.
They are “fixed in the mind as frozen
expressions, typically irreversible” (Danet
Common ones are ‘last will and testament’,
‘give and bequest’, ‘will and bequest’, ‘aid
and abet’, ‘cease and desist’, ‘rules and
Formality – many expressions of legal English
have a high degree of formality,
e.g. the preference of shall to will; positions
of people and institutions involved have
capitalised initial letters, for instance Grantor,
Devisee, Contractor, Attorney,
even the names of the documents are
capitalised – Warranty Deed, Last Will and
Unusual Prepositional Phrases – according to
Charrow and Charrow (1979) the preposition
‘as to’ frequently appears in legal English;
another example is ‘in the event of’
Frequency of Any – this word is considered
redundant, but in legal documents is more
than common: any child or children, any
encumbrances, any other assets, etc.
Hiltunen (1990:84) concludes his comment
on the issue of vocabulary by stating that
adjectives in legal English “are fairly scarce
(because they are often imprecise and vague),
nouns tend to be abstract rather than
concrete (because they frequently do not
refer to physical objects), and
verbs are selected from a fairly small number
of lexical sets”.
As Danet (1985:281) claims,
“syntactic features are probably more
distinctive of legal English than are lexical
ones, and certainly account for more of the
difficulties of lay persons in comprehending
She identifies eleven of such features.
this feature is considered by many linguists,
Urbanova (1986:19) among others, as
make such provision for the payment of
instead of provide for the payment,
or give time for the payment of any debts
instead of give time for persons owing debts
to pay, etc.
they are characteristic of formal documents;
sometimes an active verb may be more
suitable in a sentence but the use of the
passive makes it more formal;
on the other hand, sometimes it is not
possible to use the active voice because there
is no specific agent in a sentence, thus the
passive is the only choice.
it means the omission of the wh-forms plus
some forms of the verb ‘to be’, e.g.
….herein [which is] contained or implied.
exemplary are complex conditionals, they
may be used, for example, to specify who is
included in a certain term (e. g. the Grantee)
if there are more people concerned.
legal discourse is high in incidence of this
A prepositional phrase can string out one
after another, and as Danet (1985:282)
claims, “prepositional phrases are often
Sentence Length and Complexity
the complexity of legal register sentences
can be spotted very easily.
Gustafsson (1975) says that
an average sentence contains 55 words
(twice as many as in scientific English, for
and there are 2.86 clauses per sentence in
the legal style.
Sentence Length and Complexity
Legal English consists of only complete
sentences containing both
◦ coordinate and
◦ subordinate clauses, and
instances of clausal embedding (inserted
clauses) are not unique.
Sentences can stretch over several lines,
constitute one whole paragraph, and
it is not an exception that a whole document
can consist of one sentence only.
Pre n Post Modification
the distinct representatives are those of such
They are used in a way specific only for the legal
discourse. They mean this, the, the particular,
the one that is being concerned and no other.
An example: the said property.
they are typically written in the third person
as it adds to the degree of formality.
The parties concerned are referred to as the
Contractor, the Grantee, the Borrower, the
especially multiple negatives are
characteristic items of the legal language.
They are not expressed only by
◦ not, never,
but most frequently by adding the terms
◦ unless, except or
◦ by prefixes un-, in-, etc.
Binomial Expressions, Parallel Structures
Danet (1985:283) points out that
“the legal register is striking for its use of
elaborate parallel structures” and that
“binomial expressions are a special case of
Gustafsson (1975) describes these items as
“sequence of two words belonging to the
same form class, which are syntactically
coordinate and semantically related”.
Moreover, she (ibid: 75) claims that binomial
expressions are typically a pair of nouns that
functions as an adverbial and occurs in the
rhematic part of the sentence.
Binomial Expressions, Parallel Structures
Some instances of binomials: goods and
materials; liable and responsible; engage or
participate, generally and specifically, etc.
Apart from binomials, there exist trinomial and
even multinomial expressions in (legal) English.
Some examples: control, direct or supervise;
employee, partner, agent, or principal; files,
records, documents, drawings, specifications,
equipment, and similar items, etc.
Some linguists have focused their analyses on the
specification of the relationships in binomials, i.e.
synonymy, near-synonymy, antonymy and
Tendency to long sentences
Wide use of statement-type sentences
Complex post-modification in the nominal
Use of simpler verbal groups
Little attention is paid to the distinctive
prosodic features in legal documents.
Most frequently, they appear in binomial
Assonance, Alliteration and Phonemic
expressions like rules and regulations,
contain or constitute have alliteration of /r/
and then /k/.
Rhyme, Rhythm and Meter
again, most frequently some instances of
◦ rhyme and rhythm
may be found in binomial expressions, e.g.
whatsoever and wheresoever,
employ and rely,
in whole or in part,
benefits from or interests under, etc.
Gustafsson (1975) and Danet (1984b) have
studied the issue of the extent to which the
materials they analysed conform with the
principle of end-weight (Leech 2002:210).
“there are more beats, or phonetic material,
in the second half of a two-part expression”
Some examples can be found in binomials:
◦ belongs to/or can be appointed by;
◦ for me and in my name.
On the contrary, it is possible to find a
shorter item appearing second, e.g.
◦ determine or secure;
◦ direction and control.
Legal documents are to be scrutinized
◦ not only by the parties concerned
◦ but by lawyers.
So whoever draws up a legal text is constantly and
inescapably concerned with
the special kind of meaning that he or she is called
upon to produce.
He or she must meet the demands
◦ to be precise and exact,
◦ to avoid ambiguity,
◦ to evade the possibilities of misinterpretation, &
◦ to conform to the linguistic dictates of the law.
This results in
◦ the extreme conservatism of legal English
◦ which is shown
in the keeping of the ceremonial element
in legal context and
in the reliance on forms of language that
have been proved effective.
lexical repetition (rare pronoun reference)
In order to achieve exactness of reference,
leaving no loopholes whatsoever, legal
documents tend to use lexical repetition as the
formal device to link their long and self-
Repetition of the same exact word or words not
only occurs between sentences, but also
between different parts within the same
As a result, pronoun reference is scarce.
Repetition within the same sentence is
remarkably unique in this variety
Conjunctional phrases and parallel structure
Coordination of words and phrases are another
remarkable feature of legal texts.
The most frequently seen are: last will and
testament , children and issue, heirs and
devices, provisions and stipulations, full force
and effect, terms and conditions, etc
Parallel structure is prominent in enumerating
concrete terms and conditions of a policy or
Together with the proper use of blocks and
punctuations, the numbered parallel structure
makes the legal text much easier for reference
than some old types of legal texts.
Tendency to meticulous way of expression
to achieve exactness of reference and
to evade any possible misinterpretation is
to be extremely detailed in expression
lest there should arise anything disputable
concerning the stipulations on rights or
Tendency to meticulous way of expression
◦ means a natural person and not a
corporation, partnership, association or
occupying (the owned motor vehicle)
◦ means in or upon or entering into or
alighting from (the owned motor vehicle).
Use of different types
◦ Font Style
◦ Font Size
◦ Upper Case
Particular arrangement of blocks
Limited range of punctuation
Particular arrangement of blocks
The blocks of print with white space between
them and with indentations and/or numbers
(or letters) at the beginning of paragraphs or
clauses that are subordinate to the foregoing
All this is evidently an effort to give the
content a good organization and make its
internal relationship clear.
The long sentence (as the beginning sentence
of the automobile policy) is itself broken up
by spaces to mark out certain important
points within it.
Use of Italicization and Bold text:
It is very important graphological feature of
any legal document that words, phrases and
even sentences are italicized and bold to
Some laws require that certain provisions of
contracts be printed in a font that is larger
than the remainder of the text, or in all caps,
to avoid burying important terms in a bunch
of small text.
Capitalization of initial letters is in the texts
Capital letters can be seen in the names of
the participators, occupations, organizations
and institutions, instruments/documents,
main sections, and also in the sums of money
when they are set in words because these
institute an important matter.
The capitalized items are directly related to
the documents they carry the notion of ―this
and no one else‖.
Punctuation: Absence of punctuation. As it is
normally known punctuation helps reading a
piece of writing loudly.
But, what if legal texts are originally made to
be read (scrutinized) in silence, not to be
spoken at a loud voice and hence the
thinness of their punctuation, that shows the
FORMALITY of the sample taken.
Nowadays, punctuation though rare, has a
function in legal texts.
many scholars speculate that
the legal register is low in cohesive devices
because of the lack of clear sentence
a phenomenon rather problematic in legal
However, cohesive devices, if they appear in a
legal document, are distinctive.
the scarce use of reference (mainly of
pronouns) and repetition, though making a
legal text “heavy and monotonous” (Hiltunen
1990:84), are significant of legal documents –
they avoid ambiguity.
On the other hand, the use of said and such
it is possible to find some terms that
contribute to cohesion, e.g. hereinafter,
it is generally considered rare in legal
English, though some instances can be
the concern for precision and
explicitness results in the lack of
however an example of intrasentential
ellipsis can be seen in the use of whiz-
5. Lexical Cohesion
“there is apparently much reiteration” (Danet
i.e. much repetition due to the avoidance of
furthermore, synonyms, nearsynonyms and
superordinate or general terms to replace
expressions appearing in previous sentences
are scarcely used, which is sharply contrasted
to the employment of synonyms and near-
synonyms in binomial and, especially,
1. Thematic progression – it is the term that
implies several patterns of theme–
rheme/focus arrangement in discourse.
Daneš (1974) distinguishes three such
patterns of thematic progression –
◦ linear thematic progression (in two successive
clauses, the rheme/focus of the first clause
becomes the theme of the second);
◦ thematic progression with a continuous
theme (several clauses have the same theme);
◦ and a hierarchical pattern with a hyper-theme
which can be composed of several
semantically related elements. The last one is
said to be common in legal texts.
2. Foregrounding and backgrounding –
Danet (1985: 286) points out that there are two
distinctive types of legal discourse.
The first contains both foregrounding and
backgrounding, (resembles everyday discourse)
The second contains little foregrounding.
She (ibid.) gives some more explanations,
“…transitivity is considered to signal
foregrounding. Both supposedly go with a
concern for specific episodes between
individuals, while low transitivity and
backgrounding are signs of a more abstract
approach – a concern with the social structure
in which categories of participants are related”.
3. Extreme propositional density; lack of
the extreme propositional density of legal
discourse springs from the unusual length
and complexity of the sentences.
Evidence can be found in the “maze of
embedded clauses and prepositional phrases”
Propositional density results in the lack of
redundancy in information that is being
communicated – the reason is obvious – every
Danet, B. Legal Discourse. In: Van Dijk, T.A. Handbook of Discourse
Analysis. London: Academia Press, 1985. Volume 1, pp. 273-291.
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the Language of the Law. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia,
Urbanova, L. A Reader in English Stylistics. V Prešove: Filozoficka
fakulta v Prešove, 1986.
Gustafsson, M. Binomial Expressions in Present-day English: a
Syntactic and Semantic Study. Turku: Turun Yliopisto, 1975.
Leech, G. N., Deuchar, M., Hoogenraad, R. English grammar for
today: a new introduction. Basingstoke: Macmillan, c1982. Leech, G.
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Text”. In Daneš, F. (ed.) Pages on Functional Sentence Perspective.
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