Use plain language

Cultivate a style that is simple and direct.

One of the most important aspects of writing style is diction, or word selection. Though you should always use the most precise and fitting word for a particular task, your default choice should be the simplest word available. The best legal writers cultivate a plain-language style that is, as Jacques Barzun put it, “simple and direct.”

To that end, follow these guidelines in choosing your words[1]:

  • Prefer short words to long words.

  • Prefer concrete words to abstract words.

  • Prefer specific words to general words.

  • Prefer everyday language to jargon.

  • Prefer familiar words to unfamiliar words.

  • Prefer singular nouns to plural nouns.

  • Prefer numerals over spelled-out numbers.

  • Prefer words to symbols, initials, and abbreviations.

  • Prefer American words and phrases to foreign words and phrases.

Here are examples of those principles.

Prefer short words to long words.

Writers often have to choose between shorter words like “do” and longer synonyms like “perform” or “accomplish.” If two words are equally appropriate in the context of your sentence, prefer the shorter word, as short words make writing more readable.

Readability measures consider the average number of syllables per word; the more average syllables per word, the less readable the prose. Popular writing has a syllable-to-word ratio of about one and a half syllables per word.[2]

Here are some example revisions:

  • component —> part

  • in the affirmative —> yes

  • lengthy —> long

  • approximately —> about

  • indicate —> show

Prefer concrete, specific words.

Lawyers tend to make their writing unnecessarily vague and abstract. This habit makes prose less readable and meaningful.

Readers are much better at processing and remembering concrete, visualizable words than abstractions. Concrete words also promote understanding because different readers are more likely to have a shared understanding of what a concrete word means (everyone agrees on what the word “sidewalk” means, but not everyone agrees on what the word “love” means).

In general, therefore, writers should prefer specific and concrete words to vague and abstract words. Here are a few example revisions:

  • facility —> office building

  • several —> six

  • on or about June 30 —> on June 30

  • vehicle —> car

Use strong, active verbs.

Instead of be (is, are, etc.) and have, try words like:

  • bludgeon

  • dupe

  • echo

  • erupt

  • ignite

  • hoodwink

  • rip

  • thwart

  • vex

I admit that it is difficult to envision legal-writing use cases for some of these words, but it’s the principle that matters. English is rich in verbs; take advantage of that richness.[3]

For numbers over ten, use numerals instead of spelled-out numbers.

Spell out the numbers zero through ten, writing all other numbers as numerals. Never provide both the spelled-out number and the numeral.

Examples:

  • 9 —> nine

  • ten (10) —> ten

  • eleven —> 11

Prefer words over symbols and abbreviations.

Some abbreviations and initialisms are necessary, but lawyers tend to overuse them, and they are often more convenient for the writer than for the reader. Only create an abbreviation if you intend to use a term more than once or twice in a document.

As for general-purpose abbreviations such as “i.e.” and “e.g.,” the trouble is that writers and readers alike are often mistaken about what they mean.[4] Consider the following revisions:

  • etc. —> and so on

  • e.g., —> for example,[5]

  • i.e., —> that is,

Prefer English words and phrases.

For centuries, English-speaking lawyers have attempted to dress up their language by using Latin terms and phrases. Use English instead. For example:

  • inter alia —> among others

  • even assuming, arguendo, —> even if

  • res judicata —> claim preclusion

Footnotes:

[1] Some of these guidelines are borrowed from Bruce Ross-Larson, Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words (1996).

[2] See Joe Glaser, Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing (1999).

[3] In his excellent book The Art of Advocacy, Noah Messing provides a list of 2,000 short verbs that can make your prose more vivid. See Noah A. Messing, The Art of Advocacy: Briefs, Motions, and Writing Strategies of America’s Best Lawyers 279–85 (2013).

[4] I.e., from the Latin id est., means “that is”; e.g., from the Latin exempli gratia, means “for example.” These are routinely confused.

[5] E.g. is needed for the citation signal see, e.g., ~.


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Ryan McCarl is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl LLP and the author of the book-in-progress Elegant Legal Writing. He taught Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.