JUDGE: The charge here is theft of frozen chickens. Are you the defendant?
DEFENDANT: No, sir, I’m the guy who stole the chickens.
Want to know the one big reason so many corporate types are resistant to the idea of writing like a human being?
They’re terrified of getting into trouble with the Legal department.
And ever noticed that the less status a writer has in a corporation, the more likely they are to cling to clunkiness? To mangle meaning in the mistaken belief that burying their point in verbiage will protect them from a scary phone call?
Yes, HR, I’m talking about you.
But these days writing like a lawyer is just as likely to get you into trouble as protect you from it. And I don’t just mean missing a sale because you’ve confused a customer. Or finding your words quoted back at you in all their verbose glory on the Plain English Society website.
I mean legal trouble. In the financial services industry, for example, there are laws designed to stop firms misleading others with overly complex writing.
In the UK, the Financial Services Authority cites the provision of clear information as one of the things it expects from financial firms as part of its Treating Customers Fairly regulation. Its US counterpart, the Securities and Exchange Commission, has created a whole document to help finance types write clearly. And 44 of the 50 US states have some form of requirement for insurance contracts to be written in plain English.
What’s more, it’s a myth that clear English isn’t legally accurate or precise. If there’s ever been a case where a contract has been declared less legally binding because it’s written in plain English, please let me know.
Why lawyers write like that
If you’re trying to persuade that HR bod to lighten up a bit, it might help if you explain to them why their colleagues in Legal write like that. Simply tell them that there are good historical reasons why legalese is so long-winded and impenetrable.
For a start, back in the day, legal copywriters were paid by the word. Now, you don’t need to have read Freakonomics to know where that particular pay incentive’s going. Ask me to charge by the word and I’ll give you as many of the things as I can type in the time allotted to the task.
Another reason legal language is so wordy goes back to the days after the Norman invasion, when England became bilingual. There were the courtly types who wrote in French and Latin, and the rest of us who spoke good old Anglo-Saxon.
To avoid ambiguity and make their work accessible to everyone, medieval lawyers often provided pairs of words in different languages, many of which are still around today: see duplets such as breaking and entering (English/French), fit and proper (English/French) and will and testament (English/Latin).
Have you noticed that corporate types have unconsciously adopted this habit? Think how often they repeat themselves by using tautological phrases such as on a worldwide, global basis, bespoke, customised products, and new innovation.
In days gone by, such verbiage was about being fair and inclusive. Today, the opposite is true. Like the human appendix, legalistic wordiness is an obsolete remnant of something that served a purpose long ago.
These days, keeping things short and sweet is the right – and legally advisable – thing to do.