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Legal Language

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  • Jan. 2011
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[This material may be used for educational or academic purposes if cited or referred to as:

Peter Tiersma, The Nature of Legal Language,]   Back to

      One of the great paradoxes about the legal profession is that lawyers are, on the one hand, among the most eloquent users of the English language while, on the other, they are perhaps its most notorious abusers.  Why is it that lawyers, who may excel in communicating with a jury, seem incapable of writing an ordinary, comprehensible English sentence in a contract, deed, or will?  And what can we do about it?

    Consider, first, the eloquence of the legal profession.  Daniel Webster was famed for his oratory skills.  Called upon to assist the prosecution in a murder case, Webster addressed any hesitations the jurors might have harbored about their power to punish the guilty.  In doing so, he provided a memorable defense of the theory of deterrence:         The criminal law is not founded in a principle of vengeance.  It does not punish that it may inflict suffering.  The humanity of the law feels and regrets every pain that it causes, every hour of restraint it imposes, and more deeply still, every life it forfeits.  But it uses evil, as the means of preventing greater evil.  It seeks to deter from crime, by the example of punishment.  This is its true, and only true main object.  It restrains the liberty of the few offenders, that the many who do not offend, may enjoy their own liberty.  It forfeits the life of the murderer, that other murders may not be committed.      A very different picture of the deterrent effect of punishment was painted by Clarence Darrow, another great legal orator.  Darrow sought to persuade a judge to spare the lives of his two young clients, who had pled guilty to a sensational murder:          What about this matter of crime and punishment, anyhow? ... Mr. Savage tells this court...

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