Legal Dictionary

Whether drafting a legal document, trying to understand an existing legal document, or studying legal concepts, Legal Dictionary is a valuable resource for discovering the meaning of a wide variety of legal terms and concepts. Legal Dictionary provides definitions and explanations of terms and concepts using plain English that is easy for anyone to understand. Quickly find definitions to specific terms using the site’s convenient search tool, or browse legal terms by category (civil or criminal), or alphabetically.

History of Legal English

Legal English, sometimes referred to as “Legalese,” was originally the domain of attorneys and other legal professionals throughout English-speaking countries, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, and South Africa, which shared many traditions of law. As English has become the internationally recognized language of business, however, Legal English has become a global reality in the drafting of legal documents, court pleadings, legal correspondence, and legislation.

How Legal English Differs from Standard English

While modern Legal English is based on standard English, the vernacular contains features such as technical terminology, grammatical structure and conventions, and even punctuation that have developed over hundreds of years with the phenomenon of legal language. Some significant differences that make understanding Legalese difficult for the average person include:

  • Terms of Art. Terminology specific to trades and professions that may be unfamiliar to lay people, such as “waiver,” “promissory,” “covenant,” or “forbearance.” Many of these terms have their roots in Latin and French.
  • Punctuation. Legal documents drafted in times past feature a distinct absence of punctuation, as attorneys of the time felt that punctuation was irrelevant, serving only to muddy the meaning of the words. Modern legal documents use punctuation to help clarify the issues addressed in the documents, though the rules of such punctuation often seems elusive to the lay person.
  • Use of Multiple Words. Legal English often strings together multiple words to convey a single concept. For example, the commonly used phrases “terms and conditions,” “null and void,” “search and seizure,” and “dispute, controversy, or claim,” all include repeated words that have virtually the meanings. This has become the stylistic standard of modern Legal English.
  • Use of Unfamiliar Pro-forms and Pronominal Adverbs. Pro-form terms such as the “aforementioned,” and the “said,” are often used to modify nouns, such as “in consideration for the aforementioned” Pronominal adverbs, such as “whereof,” “thereof,” “hereinafter,” and “thereupon,” simply do not exist in standard English, but are used liberally in Legal English to avoid the repetition of certain phrases or names. For example, the phrase “in consideration therefore,” may be used in place of “the money to be paid for the service that is the subject of this contract.”
  • Unfamiliar Titles. Legal English contains nouns and titles not generally used in Standard English, often placing an -or, -er, or -ee at the end of a noun. For example, such terms as “employer and employee,” “lessor and lessee,” and “payor and payee,” designate opposite terms or parties in a relationship.

Legal English and Accessibility

With the advent of self-help legal options, the preference for plain English in legal documents is on the rise. George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” opined that specialized technical language is not essential, but is often a “trick,” and that political language is used only to make lies appear to be truth. Orwell believed that good writing, without the use of confusing jargon, is clear and simple to understand. Others believe that technical jargon is necessary to express difficult concepts, and that, if people could describe a thing in plain language, they would.

Use of Plain English in Legal Documents

Documents written using standard English are just as legal and binding as those drafted in language difficult to understand. In fact, contracts or agreements written in plain English, presenting the information and terms of the agreement so that the parties can, in a single reading, understand the agreement, are easier for the court’s to interpret. This is because, while the courts historically interpreted contracts literally, to the letter of the agreement, modern courts take a different approach, giving great weight to the intended purpose of the agreement. In drafting contracts or agreements, laypeople should explain explicitly all the terms of the agreement, making it clear what is expected by each party in language that is easy to understand.