Resources for translating contracts (5): Legal Writing in Plain English

garner_Bryan Garner’s Legal Writing in Plain English has some excellent tips for legal writing and writing general. It’s not about any one type of legal document, although there are some model texts in an appendix.

Plain English, please

As the title suggests, Garner likes his English plain. He tells us not to use jargon, doublets (use only the word that “swallows the other”) and other legalese, including things like “provided that” and “and/or”.

He also advocates not using “shall” because it’s easy to misuse and can be misinterpreted. Apparently, the courts have interpreted “shall” as “must”, “may”, “will” and “is”. And Garner says official drafting bodies are replacing it with “must” in rules and “will” in contracts.

Garner believes we should write as we speak and “make everything you write speakable”: “Good writing is simply speech items and polished.” He suggests going for a direct, natural and relaxed style in legal writing by using things like the first and second person and even contractions. Indeed, this type of writing is already common in customer/user agreements, although I’d guess not that widespread in other types of contracts and legal writing.

Bridging and other advice on writing

This book has a lot of good advice on writing in general. I particularly liked Garner’s pointers for creating bridges between paragraphs to signpost where the text is going by using pointing words (this, that, these, those and the), echo links (mentioning earlier ideas), or explicit connectives or transition words (e.g., also, further, and yet), by themselves or in combination.

I suppose all Garner is doing here is identify characteristics we instinctively implement to make the text flow well. But it’s useful to have pointed it out and even relevant for translators. If your source language follows different conventions, you’ll now know why you may instinctively change certain things.

For instance, Spanish seems to use more formal transition words far more often than English, even in paragraphs and non-academic texts (note the many “furthermores”, “in addition tos”, and “moreovers” you get in literal translations from Spanish, even in things like website copy). These stick out in English, and I often find myself removing, simplifying or burying them further along in the sentence. Now I have a better idea of why I do that and what to aim for.

Style and punctuation guide

In addition to rules on usage throughout the book, there’s also quite a thorough appendix on punctuation. Since reading this book, I’ve found myself referring to it about things to do with writing in general — not so much about legal writing specifically. So to me this book is a bit of a style and punctuation guide with lots of practical advice on writing.

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

One comment to “Resources for translating contracts (5): Legal Writing in Plain English”
  1. Pingback: Legally Yours from Spain | Quick tip for translating contracts (6): don’t use word–numeral doublets

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