Why you need to write for the guy who stole the chickens

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.

11 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Andy Nattan says:

    Urgh. Legalese was one of the reasons I packed in Law and concentrated on writing. Interesting point on the dual language pairings though. I honestly didn’t have a clue that was the case.

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Glad to see your prose has survived the experience, Andy!

  3. Jen Reeves says:

    The legal department is a personal enemy of mine. I actually just mentioned them (in less detail) in my post about accepting criticism.
    I can’t count the number of times my AWESOME copy has been sliced by a legal team. I’m convinced lawyers take classes in how to ruin copywriters’ lives.

  4. mcclain.watson says:

    So true! I teach writing in an American business school and can report that business students – who have an even lower professional status than new employees – do this all the time. One reason is that they are steeped in a context of *academic* writing, where the emphasis is on using complex sentence structure and arcane word choice to *impress* readers, rather than business writing, with its emphasis on efficiency, clarity and getting things done. Thanks for this blog! I am enjoying following it.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bradshorr, Andrew Nattan, Robyn McMaster, Clare Lynch, vaughan denny and others. vaughan denny said: Writing for business? Learn a thing or 2 from @goodcopybadcopy Why you need to write for the guy who stole the chickens http://t.co/HHQvyg7 […]

  6. Helen Keevy says:

    Some very interesting facts here Claire. I’ve always wondered about phrases like ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘will and testament’. Makes sense now, but it’s amazing how long they’ve managed to last.

  7. Steve says:

    Oh, I like the paid by the word thing. Funnily enough I was talking to an HR person yesterday. ‘What do you think of our website’. Deep breath. ‘Can I be brutal?’ …and what do you know, she agreed with everything I said. Sing Hosanna for plain English!

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Jen – sorry to hear about your battles with Legal. If it makes you feel any better, they probably think you take classes in ruining their lives too.

    mcclain.watson – you have confirmed something I’ve long suspected: business schools are the source of much terrible business writing. Keep fighting the good fight – and do check out an earlier post I wrote on a particularly revolting example of business school babble: http://www.daccreative.co.uk/goodcopybadcopy/2009/09/16/harvard-where-managers-learn-to-speak-like-that/

    Helen – thanks for popping by. You’re right it’s amazing that nobody’s revisited these formulaic word pairs in the past millennium and said “Hang on, do we really need both?”

    Steve – wow! A rare creature indeed – that’s the kind of client you want!

  9. Bill Harper says:

    Business schools may well be the source of terrible business writing. But if you ask me the source of bloated writing is high school, or wherever students are asked to write 1500-word essays.

    Why? Because that’s where you’re taught that longer is better, and that padding something out with empty words is a good thing.

    And it all goes downhill from there.


  10. Didn’t the lawyers invent the phrase ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ as a way of charging their clients three times for doing the same thing?

  11. […] get a lot of flak from the plain English crowd, some of it probably justified. Don’t look at me – I’m a lost case who thought […]

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