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SPECIAL FEATURES OF LEGAL ENGLISH

Legal English has a set of unique characteristics which make it difficult to learn
even for native speakers of the language. Although it does share some characteristics
with other specialised languages, such as lexical repetition or noun
compounds, it also shows certain features that need getting familiar with, since
they may be prove to be particularly tricky.
In most cases those characteristics simply mean a difference in the frequency of
occurrence of certain grammatical features of English (for example, the high
frequency of vocabulary of Greek or Latin origin, or the high frequency of passive
structures). However, in some other cases there is a certain degree of departure from
the typical features of general English, as in the case of the high frequency of
subordinated sentences, the use of compound prepositions/adverbs or the presence
of the subjunctive.
1. Complex prepositional phrases
A feature of legal English is the presence of complex prepositional phrases, which
usually consist of a preposition, + (article) + noun + another preposition. Let us see
some examples:
Complex prepositional phrase

Equivalent

in the event of

if

by virtue of

by

for the reason that

because

in pursuance of

according to

for the purpose of

to/for

in accordance with

under

in respect of

under

in conformity with

under/according to

However, there are many more: without prejudice to, for the purposes of, to the
extent that, on account of, in view of, etc.
Below are some examples of these complex prepositional phrases in context:

Organised criminal group shall mean a structured group of three or more


persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of
committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in
accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a
financial or other material benefit.

Member States shall adopt all necessary measures for the automatic
granting of authorisations required for the pursuit of any employment
referred to in Articles 2 and 3. Conditions for granting such authorisations
shall in no instance be less liberal than the conditions in respect of offers to

named persons as laid down by the measures taken in pursuance of Articles


48 and 49 of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community.

A proper and rigorous enforcement regime is key to underpinning investors'


confidence in financial markets. Member States, by virtue of Article 10 of
the Treaty, are required to take appropriate measures to ensure compliance
with international accounting standards.

2. Binomial/multinomial expressions
They are a sequence of two or more words or phrases belonging to the same
grammatical category having some semantic relationship and joined by some
syntactic device such as and or or Bhatia (1993:108). Colloquially they are called:
- couplets (or doublets) when they consist of two elements, such as advice and
consent, under or in accordance with, wholly and exclusively;
- triplets when they include three items, as in rest, residue and remainder or
give, devise and bequeath.
As can be seen in the examples below, they usually combine a native English word
with another term of French or Latin origin whose meaning is very similar to or, in
many cases the same as the first words meaning:

(last) will and testament


aid and abet
null and void
all and sundry
each and every
cease and desist
have and hold
goods and chattels
cancel, annul and set aside
false and untrue;

made and signed;


right and proper;
mind and memory;
all and singular;
alter and change;
fair and equitable;
form, manner and method;
hold, possess and enjoy;
general, vague and indefinite,

3. Compound prepositions and adverbs


They are an adverbial word or place to which a preposition-like word has been
suffixed (Crystal & Davy 1969:207-208). Most compound prepositions and
adverbs could be replaced by more simple expressions, but these archaisms are
very frequent in legal English.

Lets see some examples:


Compound
preposition/adverb

Equivalent expression or paraphrase

Herein

In this document; mentioned here

Hereby

By this document

Hereinafter

In the rest of this document or text/from


now on

Hereinbefore

In the preceding part of this document or


text

Hereto

To this text or document

Herewith

Attached, accompanying this document or


text

Hereof

Of this document or text

Heretofore

So far, up to this moment

Thereafter

After that, in the future

Hereupon

On this, immediately after this

Below are some examples in context:

The Commission of the European Communities () HEREBY


RECOMMENDS THAT MEMBER STATES () recognise in the attached
Code a common set of standards at European level for the statistical
authorities.

Legislative guides for the implementation of the United Nations


Convention against transnational organized crime and the protocol
thereto.

() it is thereupon ordered and adjudged

An agreement made between John Doe (hereinafter called The Landlord)


of the one part and Rachel Smith (hereinafter called The Tenant) of the
other part whereby IT IS AGREED as follows: ___

This lease will be valid from one year from this date and will be renewed
yearly thereafter.

The member States of the Council of Europe and the other Signatories
hereto.

4. Formal register: formalism, lexical density and euphemisms


The register of legal English (degree of formality) is very high, probably one of
the most formal in all special languages. It may be detected in features like
archaisms, prepositional phrases, or compound adverbs. It is also seen in the
choice of lexical options typical of a higher register, such as append instead of

attach, deem instead of consider, desist instead of stop, expedite instead


of hasten, initiate/commence instead of begin/start, conceal instead of
hide or detain instead of hold (Garner 1987). The degree of formality is also
shown in the high frequency of subordinate clauses, the rigidity of their structure
and the unusual length of some sentences.
The conceptual difficulty is sometimes increased by fragments in which there is a
great lexical density, which makes comprehension difficult:
() the concealment or disguise of the true nature, source, location,
disposition, movement, rights with respect to, or ownership of,
property.
Another formal feature is the use of euphemisms, which make it possible to
avoid making reference to unpleasant facts or events. For instance, a visitor to a
Court of Inns is actually someone in charge of starting disciplinary proceedings
against a lawyer, or detained at her Majestys pleasure which means for an
indefinite length of time.
5. Scarcity of synonyms. Polysemy.
Legal terminology is characterized by one-to-one correspondences between
words and definitions, and it is seldom the case that a word may be easily replaced
by another. A theft is not a robbery, and not a burglary either, although in
general language speakers might use them interchangeably. However, there are
cases of close synonyms, such as annul, which has partial synonyms such as
abolish, overturn, override, set aside, quash, etc.
Polysemy (a word with several meanings) may be a source of confusion, since
there are words in legal English whose meaning may greatly vary from one context
to another. For instance:
- issue may mean both offspring, an important matter or simply a case;
- provision refers to both supply and a legal disposition;
- to sanction includes two almost contradictory meanings, that of giving
somebodys approval and taking measures against someone
Further examples can be found, such as order, which has a number of
meanings, all of them possible in legal contexts:
(a) a specific rule, regulation, or authoritative direction (by a court);
(b) a group of people united in a formal way, or a medal (as in Order of
the Garter);
(c) the state of peace, freedom from confused or unruly behavior, and
respect for law or proper authority (as in law and order);
(d) a written direction to pay money to someone.

Defence may also refer to:


(a) the act of defending oneself;
(b) a reply to an action (in civil proceedings);
(c) an exemption from guilt, as in ignorance of the law is no defence.
6. Nominalization and postmodification
Nominalization is the transformation of a whole sentence into a noun. By
means of this process, texts become very condensed because they compress a lot of
information into relatively few words.
Two types of nominalization are found in English: (1) addition of a
derivational suffix to create a noun (by adding a suffix like -ism, -tion, -ure, as
in proceed procedure); (2) zero-derivation (or conversion), as in to study
a study.
Nominalization is usually supplemented by postmodification, which seeks to
avoid potential ambiguity, even if it is at the expense of syntactic obscurity, as in
the following example cited by Crystal & Davy 1969: 204):
on the payment to the owner of the total amount of any instalments
then remaining unpaid of the rent hereinbefore reserved and agreed to
be paid and the further sum of ten shillings (...).
This postmodification sometimes has an impact on the logical order of
elements: the payment of the rent to the owner becomes the payment to the
owner of the rent in order to emphasize the recipient, and is often based on -ing
forms, as in instalments then remaining unpaid.
Let us see one example:

The 2004 Hague Programme states that further realization of mutual


recognition as the cornerstone of judicial cooperation implies the
development of equivalent standards of procedural rights in criminal
proceedings.

7. Lexical repetition and syntactic complexity


In legal English words are repeated in order to create cohesion between
sentences. Particles like it or this trigger off a search of referents and this may
cause ambiguity, which explains why lexical repetition is the favoured mechanism
of repetition, as well as other anaphoric legal expressions (the aforesaid, the
aforementioned, etc.). Let us look at one example:
The SEC has reinforced the insider trading restrictions with
promulgation of Rule 14e-3 of the SEC, an independent provision
prohibiting insider trading in connection with tender offers. Congress
has further reinforced these trading restrictions by providing the SEC
with the power to seek a treble penalty under the Insider Trading
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Sanctions Act of 1984 (ITSA). This legislation empowers the SEC to base
enforcement actions on any recognized theory of insider trading
restriction.
8. Connectives
In legal English connectives are scarcely used. Sentences tend to come one after
the other without particles such as meanwhile, since, moreover,
furthermore, etc., which makes reading abrupt.
The only connectives widely used are those which are specifically legal:
notwithstanding, subject to, provided, whilst, where, whereas, etc.
Let us see an example of this lack of connectives:

On 12 December 2011 the Court considered the appropriate sentence. At


the outset, the prosecution applied for costs in the sum of 130,000 and
asserted that "we are confident that he has the means to meet any order
the Court may make". The appellant contends that it was at that point
that the judge embarked on a procedure which was not only unfair but did
not amount to an appropriate means enquiry. In light of the judge's
dismissal of the confiscation proceedings, the appellant contends that the
"highly contentious issue" of the appellant's means was never addressed
by oral evidence from himself, his wife, his mother or his accountant.
Indeed, apart from the appellant, none of the others were available to give
evidence at the sentence hearing.

9. Long and complex sentences


Legal English has very long and complex sentences, with multiple levels of
subordination and embedding, something very seldom found in general English,
which generally shows a clear tendency towards coordination. According to Crystal
& Davy (1969:201), (...) sentences tend to be extremely long. It is a characteristic
legal habit to conflate, by means of an array of subordinating devices, sections of
language which would elsewhere be much more likely to appear as separate
sentences.
Below is an example:

Member States shall ensure that when a suspected or accused person has
been subject to questioning or hearings by an investigative or judicial
authority with the assistance of an interpreter pursuant to Article 2, when
an oral translation or oral summary of essential documents has been
provided in the presence of such an authority pursuant to Article 3(7), or
when a person has waived the right to translation pursuant to Article
3(8), it will be noted that these events have occurred, using the recording
procedure in accordance with the law of the Member State concerned.

10. Syntactic discontinuity

It refers to the insertion of clauses that restrict the meaning of the main clause.
It occurs if two elements of the same phrase (e.g. a noun phrase), which would
normally be situated beside each other in the sentence structure, are formally
separated by another expression or clause being inserted in between them. As a
result of this, the two elements, which are both semantically and structurally
related, may end up distanced from each other in the structure of the sentence and
the close semantic or structural relation between them may become less obvious
http://www.esp(Mackinlay,
world.info/Articles_7/Syntactic%20DiscontLegal.htm).
These constructions are an essential part of legislative provisions:

Since the objective of this Regulation, namely to establish a uniform rapid


and efficient mechanism for the recovery of uncontested pecuniary claims
throughout the European Union, cannot be sufficiently achieved by the
Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale and effects of the
Regulation, be better achieved at Community level, the Community may
adopt measures in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity as set out
in Article 5 of the Treaty.

Let us look at an example from the Council of Europe Convention on


Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on
the Financing of Terrorism:
Article 37 Content of request
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Any request for co-operation under this chapter shall specify:

a
the authority making the request and the authority carrying out the
investigations or proceedings;
b

the object of and the reason for the request;

c
the matters, including the relevant facts (such as date, place and
circumstances of the offence to which the investigations or proceedings relate, except
in the case of a request for notification;
d

in so far as the co-operation involves coercive action:

i
the text of the statutory provisions or, where this is not
possible, a statement of the relevant law applicable; and
ii
an indication that the measure sought or any other measures
having similar effects could be taken in the territory of the requesting Party under its
own law;
e

where necessary and in so far as possible:

i
details of the person or persons concerned, including name,
date and place of birth, nationality and location, and, in the case of a legal person, its
seat; and
ii
the property in relation to which co-operation is sought, its
location, its connection with the person or persons concerned, any connection with the
offence, as well as any available information about other persons, interests in the
property; and
f

any particular procedure the requesting Party wishes to be followed.

10. Scarce or inadequate punctuation

In legal texts, as in most specialised texts, style is generally not a priority, which
means that the clarity of the contents takes precedence over the form of the text.
Thus, attention is generally not paid to punctuation, which may be misplaced or
absent altogether. This implies a very careful and attentive reading of the text by
the recipient.
11. Abundance of passive structures
In legal texts passive structures are very frequent because in most cases the core
of the message is the action/fact itself or its result, not the agent of the action.
Some passive structures may be somewhat complex, such as the one cited by
Alcaraz Var (1994:82):
The case was clear authority for the proposition that regard must
be had to the particular circumstances in which the rent payments
were made.
Let us see a few more examples of typical passive structures:

() in accordance with the objectives of the Treaty, the harmonious


development of the activities of credit institutions throughout the
Community should be promoted through the elimination of all
restrictions on the right of establishment and the freedom to provide
services, while increasing the stability of the banking system and
protection for savers.

() in the event of the closure of an insolvent credit institution the


depositors at any branches situated in a Member State other than that in
which the credit institution has its head office must be protected by the
same guarantee scheme as the institution's other depositors.

12. Whiz Deletion


This is the term used by Berk-Seligson (1990) to refer to the omission of the
relative pronoun and the corresponding verb, as in all the rights and remedies
[which are] available to a secured party.

13. Impersonality
Legal texts tend to be impersonal, given the fact that what matters is not so
much who writes the text but what the text itself says.
Some mechanisms to enhance this tendency to impersonality are the use of
passives structures (where the agent is not mentioned, as in unavailable deposits
are not fully reimbursed) and the use of inanimate subjects or ergative structures
(the law establishes).
14. Tendency to avoid the negative particle not
One of the curiosities of some legal texts is the roundabout way in which
negative structures are sometimes formed. There seems to a certain reluctance to
use the particle not, which is reflected in the alternative use of particles with
negative meaning, such as never, unless, except, fail to etc., or terms with a
negative prefix such as un- (unauthorised, undesirable), il- (illegal), im(impossible), ir- (irregular), in- (incomplete), dis- (discontinue,
dissatisfied), etc. Let us see a few examples:

Each Member State shall ensure that within its territory one or more
deposit-guarantee schemes are introduced and officially recognized.
Except in the circumstances envisaged in the second subparagraph and in
paragraph 4, no credit institution authorized in that Member State
pursuant to Article 3 of Directive 77/780/EEC may take deposits unless it
is a member of such a scheme.

If those measures fail to secure compliance on the part of the credit


institution, the scheme may, where national law permits the exclusion of a
member, with the express consent of the competent authorities, give not
less than 12 months' notice of its intention of excluding the credit
institution from membership of the scheme.

The production of euro coins is decided and organised on a national basis,


and typically falls under the responsibility of each country's national
mint, except for countries without a mint which commission coins from
other producers.

15. Use of prepositions which are separated from their complements


This is a typical feature of colloquial English which is also present in legal
discourse. The difficulty arises when the distance between the preposition and its
complement is considerable, because the reference may then be lost. In addition,
this usually happens with two or more prepositions at the same time.

Let us see a few examples:

Council Decision 2007/845/JHA of 6 December 2007 concerning


cooperation between Asset Recovery Offices of the Member States in the
field of tracing and identification of proceeds from, or other property
related to, crime.

Protocol against the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms,


their parts and components and ammunition.

() the concealment or disguise of the true nature, source, location,


disposition, movement, rights with respect to, or ownership of, property.

Investigative assistance and provisional measures sought in paragraph


2.b shall be carried out as permitted by and in accordance with the
internal law of the requested Party.

The requesting Party shall also provide without delays all complementary
information requested by the requested Party and which is necessary for
the implementation of and the follow up to the provisional measures.

16. The subjunctive


The use of the subjunctive has practically disappeared from colloquial English,
where it used only in certain set phrases 1. It has been gradually replaced by other
alternative options, such as putting the verb in the present or the past, or putting in
should, as follows:
Its essential that you are here on time.
I demanded that he apologised.
What do you suggest we should do?
It is formed by: adjective/noun/verb + (that) + subject + the infinitive (without
to), and it is important to remember that the verb does not show concordance
with the subject, as in the following examples:
Its essential that you be here on time.
I demanded that he apologise.
What do you suggest we do?
The subjunctive is used in English in the following cases 2:
1

God save the Queen, God help you, So be it, God bless you, Heaven forbid.

Some exceptional cases: The present subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a
condition, such as If I be found guilty... (more common is am or should be). This usage is mostly oldfashioned or excessively formal, although it is found in some common fixed expressions such as if
need be. Perhaps somewhat more common is the use after whether in the sense of "no matter
whether": Whether they be friend or foe, we shall give them shelter. Analogous uses are occasionally
found after other conjunctions, such as unless (and possibly until), whoever, wherever, etc.: I shall
not do it unless I be instructed; Whoever he be, he shall not go unpunished. Source: Wikipedia,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

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1. After verbs such as: ask, advise, command, demand,


insist, order, propose, recommend, request, require,
suggest, urge.
- Even though someone may be eligible for an informal hearing, we
will recommend that he attend a formal hearing.
- Each Party shall adopt such legislative and other measures as may
be necessary to empower its courts or other competent authorities
to order that bank, financial or commercial records be made
available or be seized in order to carry out the actions referred to
in Articles 3, 4 and 5.
2. After adjectives such as important, essential, crucial,
advisable, urgent, etc.:
- It is crucial that he be granted the opportunity to present his
positions to the court.
- It is essential that the Commission send the report.
- It is a good idea that the witness be questioned again.
3. After nouns, in expressions like the following:
- There is also the recommendation that the Council meet every
week.
- There is the necessity that finance be found urgently.
The use of the subjunctive becomes even more complicated when it involves a
passive structure, a negative structure or a continuous tense, as in the following
examples:
It is important that she be waiting for the boss when he comes.
He insisted that Mary not be there.
They recommended that he be hired for the job
17. Conditional sentences with inversion and omission of if
There is in English a conditional structure which is made with subject-operator
inversion and elision of the particle if. It usually involves had, should or
were:
- Had she known about it, she wouldnt have gone.
- Should you need more details, do not hesitate to contact us.
- Were I in your place, I would take the opportunity.

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Some other examples would be the following:


Each Party may provide that the only prerequisite is that the
conduct would have constituted a predicate offence had it occurred
domestically.
Patients should enjoy a guarantee of assumption of the costs of that
healthcare at least at the level as would be provided for the same
healthcare, had it been provided in the Member State of affiliation.
18. Use of present participle
In legal English, and in EU English in particular, there is a clear tendency to use
the present participle in legislative texts, more specifically in the recitals of EU legal
documents: having regard to, expressing, considering, recognizing, etc.
19. Use of collective nouns
Given the nature of the EU, collective nouns are used extremely frequently:
Commission, Committee, Council, etc. The same happens in general English
with nouns such as hospital, police, family, company, staff, etc.
Collective nouns may be seen either as a single unit made up of people or as just
a group of people. If they are seen as a group, then the verb is in the singular; if
they are seen as a number of people, the verb is in the plural.
In British English these nouns can have a singular or a plural verb: the team are
playing well, the Hospital are planning a strike, the government is
implementing the measure, although there seems to be a marked tendency
towards the plural form. With police, the singular in British English is rarely
used.
In American English, however, these nouns normally take a singular verb
because they tend not to be seen as a number of people but as a group: The team is
playing well.
20. Use of To be + to + verb
In legal texts, it is rather frequent to find the structure to be + to + verb to
express a future obligation (or lack of it if it is in the negative), or to replace
must/have to, as in the following examples:
- There is to be no right of appeal against the rejection of the
application.
- For the gradual establishment of such an area, the Community is
to adopt, inter alia, measures in the field of judicial cooperation in
civil matters having cross-border implications and needed for the
proper functioning of the internal market.

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