Legal Couplets and Triplets

We lawyers love to write in twos and threes. The judge orders and directs, the testator declares “I give, bequeath and devise … ”, the buyer demands that the property be free and clear of all liens and encumbrances.

When asked why they write this way, lawyers may answer “to be more accurate or precise”. Really? Why is using two, three or even more synonyms any more precise? It’s certainly less concise. Occasionally you hear “because it’s a term of art”. This can make sense in some cases. Aid and abet summarizes thousands of pages of case law on what level of assistance to a crime can itself become a crime. But these cases are rare.

There may be a historical reason for some of this repetition. I’m sure you know of the earthshaking events of 1066, earthshaking for the English Language at least. For some 300 years after  William crossed the Channel to defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings, French was the language of the English Court. Savvy lawyers needed to speak English with their clients and Latin and French in the law courts. Richard Wydick* points out that free and clear, for example, traces its origins to the Old English freo and the Old French cler.

In other cases the coupled synonyms derive from earlier times, when legal transactions were oral. Alliterations, such as in to have and to hold, were an aid to memory. In other cases repetition sounds impressive as in ordered, adjudged and decreed.

But we in modern times don’t need this verbiage. So why not examine your own writing for phrases you can clip? You’ll spend a bit time at first deciding what is wheat and what is chaff, but once you’ve done the ground work you’ll streamline your writing for years to come.

To get you started, the appendix below shows phrases that can be replaced with a single word without loss of meaning.

If you have any question or are tempted to make a comment, go for it!

* Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers, 5th Ed. 2005 Carolina Academic Press, p. 18



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