Avoid overspecification and synonym strings

Lawyers routinely include strings of synonyms and near-synonyms in their writing.

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Lawyers routinely include strings of synonyms and near-synonyms in their writing in an effort to cover every conceivable contingency and nuance. One common manifestation of this is the use of doublets (such as “aid and abet” or “terms and conditions”) and triplets (such as “release, remise, and forever quitclaim”), which are set phrases of redundant synonyms. But redundancy in legal writing takes many forms.

Consider, for example, the following sentence from a complaint:

Posada never gave permission, or assigned, licensed or otherwise consented to Defendants using or altering her image, likeness or identity to advertise, promote, market or endorse Defendants’ business, the Club or any Club event.

Some of the concepts in this sentence are synonyms (e.g., “gave permission” and “consented”), one of which will do. Other concepts in the sentence encompass each other (e.g., the act of licensing is a form of giving consent to use something), creating another form of redundancy.

Here’s another example, this one from a set of jury instructions:

If you find that any one or more of these seven (“7”) statements has not been proved, then your verdict must be for the defendant.

“Any one or more” should be replaced with “any,” and “seven (‘7’)” should be replaced with “seven.”

In addition to making prose unreadable, overspecification can backfire by implicitly limiting the generality of certain terms. According to the ejusdem generis canon of interpretation, when general words follow an enumeration of two or more things, the general words may be held to apply only to things of the same general kind as those specifically mentioned.[1] For example, a discovery request seeking “documents, receipts, memoranda, notations, and other records” might be held not to encompass audio recordings, and a will devising “my furniture, clothes, cooking utensils, motor vehicles, and all other property” might be held not to encompass real estate.

[1] See Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 199–213 (2012).

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Ryan McCarl teaches Advanced Legal Writing and researches artificial intelligence law and policy at the UCLA School of Law. He is also a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.