Quantcast
Home / Your Practice / The Legal Writer: Government legalese

The Legal Writer: Government legalese

Legalese is bad enough. But when it’s blended with bureaucratese, it becomes even worse.

This is from a recent government document:

During the last two years, we have implemented and initiated many improvement efforts toward streamlined, transparent, collaborative services for our internal federal and external public customers. This revision to the handbook continues to implement our foundational regulatory document 41 CFR 102-194, while embracing the electronic government transformation over the last 10 years with a view toward the vision of transparency, participation, and collaboration in government. [...]

31.5 Words per sentence – Grade level 21.9

Readability score 0

Who has completed the 21st, almost 22nd grade? That is the number of years of formal schooling you must have before you can understand that passage on first reading. Considering than only 17 percent of Americans read at or above the 12th-grade level – and no one reads at the 21st – the passage will bewilder all readers. A zero readability score is difficult to achieve – but not for legislatures, governments – or unfortunately, lawyers.

A quick fix:

During the last two years, we have tried to improve and our services for both our internal federal and external public customers. We have made our process more streamlined, transparent, and collaborative. This revision to the handbook continues to implement 41 CFR 102-194. But it also embraces the electronic progress of the last 10 years. [The rest repeats the second sentence.]

13.2 Words per sentence – Grade level 8.7

Readability score 56

The grade level now makes it possible for many citizens to read this.

(Note: To get accurate readings, substitute X for 41 CFR 102-194. The jumble of letters and numbers skews the calculation – just as does putting citations in paragraphs.)

Ordinary legalese

Here’s another gem, sent by Cincinnati lawyer Eric Eifrig:

Subject to the limitations set forth in the last sentence of this Subparagraph 1 and the next following Subparagraphs 2, 3, and 4 of this Paragraph C, if the representative of my estate, in such the representative’s sole discretion, shall determines that there are not enough appropriate assets of my estate are not available in sufficient amount to pay (a) taxes levied against or with respect to my taxable estate by reason of my death, including interest and penalties thereon, if any, (b) debts and expenses of administration of my estate, and (c) any bequests under my Will, other than a residuary bequest, the Trustee shall, upon the request of the representative of my estate, contribute from the principal of the trust estate the amount of such the deficiency; and in connection with any such that action, the Trustee shall rely upon the written statement of the representative of my estate as to the validity and correctness of the amounts of any such debts, taxes, expenses and bequests, and shall furnish funds to such representative so as to enable such the representative to discharge the same, or to discharge any part or all thereof of them by the Trustee’s making payment directly to the governmental official or agency or to the person entitled or claiming to be entitled to receive payment thereof.

212 Words per sentence – Grade level 45.8 Readability score 0

We won’t even try to fix that. It should be completely rewritten.

The first step would be something such as this:

Subject to the limitations set forth in the last sentence of this Subparagraph 1 and the next following Subparagraphs 2, 3, and 4 of this Paragraph C, if the representative of my estate, in such the representative’s sole discretion, shall determine that  there are not enough appropriate assets of my estate are not available in sufficient amount to pay (a) taxes levied against or with respect to my taxable estate by reason of my death, including interest and penalties thereon, if any, (b) debts and expenses of administration of my estate, and (c) any bequests under my Will, other than a residuary bequest, the Trustee shall, upon the request of the representative of my estate, contribute from the principal of the trust estate the amount of such the deficiency; and in connection with any such action, the Trustee shall rely upon the written statement of the representative of my estate as to the validity and correctness of the amounts of any such debts, taxes, expenses and bequests, and shall furnish funds to such representative so as to enable such the representative to discharge the same, or to discharge any part or all thereof by the Trustee making payment directly to the governmental official or agency or to the person entitled or claiming to be entitled to receive payment thereof.

Just taking out the suchs and thereofs and sames helps a bit, but there’s still a long way to go.

Of course, the first phrase, Subject to the limitations set forth in the last sentence of this Subparagraph 1 and the next following Subparagraphs 2, 3, and 4 of this Paragraph C, sets the tone, which is that the drafter was too lazy to think out the document as a whole. Any document that relies on more than a couple provided thats or subject tos or nothwithstandings is poorly written. Provided that should be changed to if, only used sparingly, and never more than once in a sentence. If provided that cannot be if and mean what you intend, then rewrite.

__________

Mark Painter served as a judge on the Ohio Court of Appeals for 14 years. In March 2009 he was elected by the United Nations General Assembly as the only American to serve on the United Nations Appeals Tribunal. Judge Painter is the author 6 books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing. The new fourth edition is available here.

You can contact Judge Painter through his website, www.judgepainter.org.

Scroll To Top