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The Move Toward Using Plain Legal Language

Cynthia Adams

The Move Toward Using Plain Legal Language
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Clarity, conciseness, and precision are the hallmarks of writing excellence. But for centuries drafters of laws, litigation documents, and contracts have aimed for precision with little regard for whether the writing was clear or concise. This “traditional style” of legal writing is notorious for its unnecessarily complex words, legal jargon, and convoluted sentences that can obscure meaning and create ambiguity. Laypeople have often criticized or ridiculed this style of writing, finding it difficult to read and comprehend. And many jurists have agreed. Judge Learned Hand once stated, “The language of the law must not be foreign to the ears of those who are to obey it.”

The History of Plain Language

In response to these criticisms, a move toward using “plain language” began in the 1970s. Plain language (also referred to as plain English) is not about oversimplifying communications or writing in a lackluster style. The goal of plain language is to express precisely a communication with clarity and conciseness so that it is easily read and understood by its intended audience. Therefore, plain language drafters avoid verbosity, pretentious language, and tortuous sentence structures.

Over the years the plain language movement has gained support among legal practitioners, particularly those in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States. In 1983, some legal professionals formed a group devoted to promoting the use of plain legal language; since then, Clarity International has developed into a worldwide organization that holds biennial conferences and publishes a biannual journal devoted to research in plain legal language. Today, plain language advocates include government officials, judges, lawyers, legal consultants, and legal educators.

Despite Support for Plain Legal Language, Legalese Persists

Despite the ever-increasing support for using plain legal language, the traditional style of legal writing, rife with legalese and bloated sentences, persists in legislation, regulations, litigation drafting, and contracts. Reasons for this persistence vary. Some legal writers cling to the myth that conciseness and clarity often must be sacrificed in order to express the communication as accurately as possible. But a capable legal writer should be able to draft clearly and concisely without sacrificing precision. Still, other writers prefer the traditional style over plain language because they believe it communicates a lawyerly tone that seems more impressive, authoritative, or persuasive. Yet, a communication’s power is diminished or lost if the reader struggles with reading and understanding the message. Furthermore, a recent study published by the Michigan Bar Journal shows that judges find plain language more persuasive than legalese. Perhaps another reason why some writers continue to use a traditional style is that they are too busy to do otherwise. While drafting in plain language might appear easy, it takes time and effort to communicate complex ideas clearly, concisely, and precisely. The payoff for doing so, however, can be considerable.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010

Government officials were among the first to promote the use of plain language. The objective was to make the law more understandable to the public and, by doing so, provide more efficient services and cut costs. These efforts have resulted in significant successes. For example, in 1996, the UK tax office HM Revenue & Customs began rewriting tax legislation in plain English. A 2009 progress report noted that the office saved approximately £70 million annually in administrative costs. In the United States, government agencies using plain language have also experienced greater efficiency and cost savings. And, on October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 that embraces plain language principles and requires US federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

Basic Principles for Plain Legal Writing

So what are the principles for writing in plain language? The following list notes the basics. You can find a more detailed list at

  • Reduce sentence length. For long sentences (e.g., exceeding 24 words) divide into shorter sentences or, in the case of a series or list, use tabulation.
  • Prefer active voice over passive voice.
  • Eliminate pretentious legal language (including Latin expressions) when a simple word or phrase will do.
  • Remove redundancies (such as any and allfree and clear).
  • Reduce nominalizations.