I love this article by Lucy Kellaway. It doesn’t matter who uses jargon, the accountant, lawyer, PR or marketing guru. They all use it for the same reason which is to make it look like they know something you don’t. They then try and sell you what they know.
But with the exception perhaps of PR or marketing gurus, the members of my own legal profession must be among the worst culprits. At least some of the time doctors have to use Latin terminology: lawyers never do when dealing with clients.
Jargon is the very antithesis of plain English. Ironically, over time it becomes easier to write complex sentence structures rather than simple ones. In law, you are trained to use archaic language and style from the day you arrive in University. That training continues throughout the course of your professional training. (I was one of the fortunate ones who was taught to use plain English (mostly!) by my training solicitor). But of course there is absolutely no requirement for jargon or complexity when trying to communicate what are for the most part simple ideas.
There is a very simple premise to the proper use of language originally espoused by an Austrian E.H. Gombrich, the author of arguably the best concise history of the world. His brilliant ‘A Little History of the World’ was written in very simple prose for a reason. He felt that nothing factual had happened in history that could not be explained to and understood by an intelligent 12-year-old if it was written properly. I respectfully go one step further: if you cannot explain what it is that you are doing or why you are doing it to an intelligent 12-year-old then you probably don’t understand it.
Often crimes against English in law are committed in letters written by solicitors. I regularly see letters from colleagues that make me whisper a silent apology to the ghost of Mr Gombrich. No doubt the authors feel their work demonstrates their intellect and command of the language. But unfortunately and almost always unfairly it does the very opposite.
Milder offences include the almost ubiquitous first-line of the legal letter, “We refer to the above matter.” The matter should have been dealt with in the reference bar. Next is the irritatingly common sign-off, “We await hearing from you.” If the letter was written properly it should be obvious if requires a response or not. In any event it’s just rude. And lastly we have the kindly but superfluous, “Please do not hesitate to contact us”, which is a mild offence committed not just by lawyers but by almost everyone. I sometimes imagine the letter’s recipient sitting staring at the phone in a state of agitation wondering, “Will I or won’t I.”
More severe offences include the use of utterly archaic words like ‘herein’ ‘herewith’, ‘hereinbefore, ‘aforementioned’ ‘same’ ‘said’ and ‘such’. And lawyers love using the passive rather than the active because it sounds more legalistic: imagine “This matter will be considered by us shortly”, instead of “We will consider this matter shortly.”
Perhaps the most severe offence is the use of the inordinately long sentence. Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words with a maximum of 28 words. But here is an example of a sentence that was authored in my opinion from a different perspective:
“In this regard, to the extent that the final paragraph of your letter of this afternoon could be interpreted as suggesting that the payment of interest that is to be made by your client at the end of this month, is to be funded by the rents and income of the Rental Properties that are held in escrow in your client account, please immediately clarify the basis on which your client may be of the view that any such deduction is permissible having regard to the express terms of the undertaking that has been provided to the Court, as recorded in the…”.
That sentence is already more than 100 words long. What in that sentence could not as easily be communicated using the following alternative 23 word sentence:
“Please confirm if and explain why your clients believe they can pay interest and capital from the money held in escrow.”
Leman Solicitors are committed to using plain English. It’s part of our Client Charter. We use plain English because it’s faster to write, faster to read and we get our message across more often, more clearly and more effectively. That’s part of our commitment to transparency. It’s a commitment that made us become Ireland’s first law firm to allow clients full access to their fully electronic files online.
Every January for the past decade I have handed out awards for horrible use of language in business.