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Copyright (c) 2000 Scribes
The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing

REVIEW ESSAY: Legal Language

Peter M. Tiersma, University of Chicago Press (1999) (298 pages)

1998 / 2000

The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing

7 Scribes J. Legal Writing 165


Richard C. Wydick


Peter Tiersma is a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is trained in both law and linguistics -- a combination that should pique the curiosity of this journal's readers. His new book, Legal Language, is designed to deepen our understanding of the odd strain of English used by lawyers, judges, and those who write laws and regulations in common-law nations. Professor Tiersma argues that legal English is oddly different from ordinary English, that legal English does a poor job of communicating information, and that we members of the legal profession know quite well how to communicate legal ideas in ordinary English when we want to (for example, in a lawyer's closing argument to a jury). Tiersma concludes that we should critically examine legal English. We should keep the parts that preserve useful links to the past, or that signal a switch from ordinary life to an important legal event. But we should shovel out the rest -- for example, our affinity for the passive voice and for such words as aforesaid.

Part 1: Origins of Legal Language

Tiersma divides his book into four parts, the first of which sketches the language history of England. This is familiar territory to those who have read the late David Mellinkoff's classic, The Language of the Law (1963). But the story bears retelling, and Tiersma tells it more economically than Mellinkoff did.

At several points in English history, the language of governance differed from the language of the people. That happened ...
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