Recently there have been a lot of questions about legalese. Here are a couple of examples:

These have been closed as off topic, with such comments as:

This question appears to be off-topic because it is about legal practice, rather than the English language


Analysis of the grammar used in legal documents is not a matter for language specialists, but rather of judges, and those who know how judges think, namely lawyers. Legal English does not follow normal English rules for definiteness, repetition, conjunction, reference and coreference, indirect discourse, adverbial placement, and many other syntactic phenomena. It also deploys archaic syntax, lexical items, and idioms that have not been spontaneously spoken by a native speaker in centuries. As I said, it's not within our writ here.

But, on the other hand, we also have a with 111 questions and the summary

Questions about the strange language of legalese.

And such comments as:

Where did this idea come from that questions about English-language legal phraseology are "off-topic" here? If the language is archaic, that only makes the case stronger for keeping it here, because that means it's a question about etymology and the evolution of the language, and nothing could be more on-topic than that.

In the on topic section of our help we do not list legalese as something we may not ask about.

So it seems to me there is a stand-off.

Do we allow legalese questions? What should our help section say about it?

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    You have to smile at John Lawler’s use of writ with respect to all this. – tchrist Jul 21 '14 at 13:58
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    It seems fairly clear to me that this sudden jihad against questions about legal language is primarily motivated by a peevish dislike some people feel for the questions asked by a single particular user. I believe we would be making a big mistake if we allow these petty personal animosities to drive policy here. – phenry Jul 21 '14 at 15:55
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    See also meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/4986/8019. – TimLymington Jul 21 '14 at 19:52
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    It's worth flagging up that John Lawler's comment above didn't apply to a "genuine legalese" question. The querent was asking about the meaning of some garbled translated rubbish - effectively, asking for help parsing an invalid utterance. Someone took the trouble to explain exactly what was intended by the drivel. But most likely the OP already knew that anyway, and was simply seeking confirmation that the phrasing was incorrect, non-sensical (not legalese). – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '14 at 23:24
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    I am firmly with @phenry on this one, but I am sure so is Matt himself. I think the point is that once we have to deal with an influx of questions on X, it doesn't hurt to ask how we should go about dealing with an influx of questions on X. Whether or not they are asked by the same user. Even if they leave the site tomorrow, it's not time entirely wasted. Ultimately we're just looking at a good and useful meta question that is generating good and useful answers and comments. – RegDwigнt Jul 23 '14 at 20:18
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One of my favorite jobs as a judicial law clerk was writing jury instructions. The legal jargon of the statutes and the case law was created by legislators (often lawyers) and judges (formerly lawyers). The purpose of the statutes and cases was to implement a public policy, something that is supposed to reflect the will of the governed, the average person.

Jury instructions attempt to reduce the rules and criteria embodied in that law and decisions into ordinary language, understandable to most jurors, normal people. Similarly, there is a move in government documents and in contracts to shift toward simpler language, less jargon. Far to go.

Much jargon is a form of shorthand. When we say mandamus, legally trained folk have a quick understanding of what is meant without having to recite the sentence that explains its meaning. Some other types of terms or phrases are an attempt at precision, locking in a criteria and leaving little room to err. Ironically some of these are called magic language by lawyers, a recitation that must be there for the document to have force or effect. For example, a trademark application must assert that the mark is or will be used in commerce. That has a very specific and set meaning to a trademark lawyer.

We deal with jargon in a wide variety of fields. Why not law? We deal with complex constructions and parse them out. Again, why not law?

Clearly we do not want to stray into legal interpretation. The reason there are lawyers, and not just fact finders and law enforcers, is that there is a wide range of legal interpretation that can be brought to both the law and documents that reflect or invoke the law. This is especially true in common law countries, such as the US and UK, and many other English speaking countries. But opinion is not our purview anyway.

There is a range of questions that deal with legal terms that do have correct answers without digging deeply into legal analysis. This is especially true of jargon and questions about construction. It also could cover etymology since so much legal phrasing comes from variants of Latin, French and early (or earlier) English.

Let's keep the field open and sort between the questions that are appropriate and those that stray too far into legal opinion. We seem to have little problem shutting down individual questions that depart from our bounds.

  • Where do we draw the line between explaining jargon and legal interpretation? – Matt E. Эллен Jul 25 '14 at 17:32
  • If there are fairly set definitions of terms, its not interpretation. There will be grey areas, and an answer should reflect that. If it's very open, it's opinion and should be shut down. – bib Jul 25 '14 at 17:46
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    The problem with this approach is that there's no way for a non-lawyer to know if any particular language is jargon or magical. "Used in commerce ... has a very specific and set meaning to a trademark lawyer": this is the crux of the issue. We can't know that unless we are trademark lawyers. We can try to explain that phrase, but the answer is bound to be wrong or incomplete. The same is true of many legal terms. Not to mention that the legal terms may have different definitions or nuances in different jurisdictions. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 27 '14 at 5:04
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 Exactly so. Legal terms are essentially shorthand for large complexes of rules, and as you say, those terms denote different rules in different places and times. However, the only activity which I think we can legitimately do is parse the grammar and structure of legal texts, on the basis that English-speaking countries tend to hold a rule that they use the ordinary grammar of English in interpreting legal texts (unless there is some special reason to believe that is not what is intended). – Marcin Jul 27 '14 at 19:01
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 But there are authorities to define legal terms, such as Black's Law Dictionary. Just as we regularly explain certain computing terms or medical terms or business terms, we may be able to explain some legal terms. I am sure there are a few other lawyers on the site. And maybe a few non-lawyers who have a pretty good understanding of some legal jargon. Even if it is only to castigate it as jargon. – bib Jul 27 '14 at 20:18
  • @bib, Hmm, if "jargon is a form of shorthand", why are there "contracts to shift toward simpler language, less jargon"? – Pacerier Jun 9 '15 at 22:59
  • @Pacerier Because the shorthand is a specialized language designed for those in the know. Simpler doesn't always mean shorter, it just means clearer to the average person. – bib Jun 9 '15 at 23:19
  • @bib, Aren't the definition of laws supposed to be as unambiguous as possible? If so, then shorthand is the correct way to go, because while using simple words is clearer to the average person, the meaning if now ambiguous because different people will interpret it differently. That's a disaster isn't it? – Pacerier Jun 10 '15 at 10:05
  • @Pacerier Simpler doesn't necessarily mean vaguer. It often means longer (more spelled out). It also may mean dropping traditional and archaic terms for more current usage. Finally, it may mean avoiding confusing terms. For example robbery and assault are terms of art in law that may mean something very different to the lay person unless they are explicitly defined. – bib Jun 10 '15 at 10:51
  • @bib, So your suggestion is to further increase the already huge set of definitive text that law uses, in the hope that increasing the volume of such text might actually help make them easier to understand? – Pacerier Jul 8 '15 at 11:48
  • @Pacerier Not necessarily. Some legal verbiage is incredibly repetitive. Constructions such as vehicles, including but not limited to automobiles, cars, trucks, trailers, both single and tandem, motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, ... etc, etc, etc could simply stop at vehicles. – bib Jul 8 '15 at 12:42

I see no reason to close questions about legal English as long as they are about the language, not about actual legal interpretation as done in court. Even the definition of a legal term is about English, and I would even allow it if it requires some knowledge of a law to answer; otherwise, we should also close questions about the meaning of anacoluthon, sports terms, slang, etc., which also all require some knowledge from certain fields that not everyone may possess.

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    I agree in principle; however it is extremely rare for a legal term to have just one, clear meaning. If a question quotes half a sentence (as often happens), any answer is likely to be misleading. Of course, if a full page of dense argument is quoted, the question will probably be about legal opinion rather than language... – TimLymington Jul 21 '14 at 20:00
  • Yes, but in matters of legalese interpretation/help with phrasing, I would probably tend to take an even harsher line that usual re "General Reference". Many problems with legalese simply arise from the fact that we often have lengthy and syntactically complex constructions involving unfamiliar or abstract concepts - the basic grammar is GR. But many of the rest are down to archaic phrasing - which I wouldn't accept on ELL, but I suppose is okay for ELU. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '14 at 23:38
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    "Even the definition of a legal term is about English". No it isn't - it's about the rules which that term denotes, which is a question of law. – Marcin Jul 23 '14 at 15:48

This is a general site for english language grammar, meaning, and etymology questions. We wouldn't entertain questions about the meaning of the jargon of any of the hard sciences, because those require specialist knowledge and are specific to those professional communities. In the same way, we should not entertain questions about legal jargon, because again that requires the special skills and knowledge of lawyers to answer. Simply put: in all of those fields, we cannot reasonably expect to provide correct answers.

However, in respect of parsing the grammar and syntax of legal documents, we can and should assist with those requests. In US (possibly excluding Louisiana) and English law (and as far as I know in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), the general rule is that the ordinary rules of grammar apply.

Update: I suppose there's nothing wrong with meta level questions about how lawyers use English to discuss law. For example, there's this: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/186587/what-is-the-intransitive-meaning-of-control asking about jargon which lawyers use to discuss law, which does not in itself denote a legal rule.

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    There are nearly 100 questions and answers with double digit scores relating to jargon on the site. There are many hundreds more overall. I agree that some jargon is too esoteric to be of interest to our audience, but some of it may be fascinating, especially where etymology is involved (as you suggest). – bib Jul 23 '14 at 19:29
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    Simply put: in all of those fields, we cannot reasonably expect to provide correct answers. Yes, but sometimes there is no way to know that, unless someone first asks the question. Some words have different meanings between laypeople and experts. Nanotechnology belongs in the hard sciences, but that doesn't stop journalists from writing articles about it. I agree with you: we shouldn't provide legal advice, but there's nothing wrong with analyzing legal language. – J.R. Jul 23 '14 at 22:11
  • Simply put, you can advise on what legalese means to you, but not what it means to a court. Saying what some sentence or jargon term means to a scientist is within the bounds of (admittedly specialist) linguistics, since linguists can study usage by people other than themselves. Saying what something means to a court is a specially privileged activity, called "giving legal advice", that might be forbidden to unqualified people to do professionally whether they happen to be linguists or not, and is fairly unwise to do even for free – Steve Jessop Jul 27 '14 at 14:57
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    @SteveJessop Saying what legalese means to you is completely worthless unless you have the specialist education to do that. It is in fact possible to do that without being licenced in any place to practice law. The issue is that the activity is forbidden by law; the issue is that actual expertise is required. – Marcin Jul 27 '14 at 18:57
  • @Marcin: Actually the issue is that 'giving legal advice' is such a minefield that it is prohibited on all Stack Exchange sites, no matter what qualifications you may have. See discussion here. – TimLymington Nov 9 '14 at 22:54
  • @TimLymington Good, we should close questions on legalese in that case. – Marcin Nov 10 '14 at 8:24

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