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November 21, 2002 - Law and Language - 2002-11-21

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": November 21, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on Wordmaster -- language and the law.

RS: That's what our guest today writes about in a column for The Green Bag, which calls itself "An Entertaining Journal of Law." David Franklin is a visiting professor at New York's Cardozo Law School, and was a clerk on the U-S Supreme Court.

AA: David Franklin says lawyers use words as tools of the trade, but in many cases misuse them.

FRANKLIN: "First of all, lawyers have a big tendency to use Latinate rather than Anglo-Saxon words. So they'll say things like 'substantial' and 'significant,' instead of 'big' or 'large' or 'great.' Lawyers like to use words that sound sort of imposing, rather than simple words. So lawyers 'draft' documents instead of 'writing' them, and they 'review' documents instead of 'reading' them. And everything is a 'document,' not a 'book' or a 'paper' or a 'newspaper article.'"

AA: "What about the civilian population, those of us who are not lawyers who nevertheless seem to sound like ones when we talk these days."

RS: "Are we finding that because the lawyers speak this way, we end up speaking this way?"

FRANKLIN: "I think there is some of that, and I'm not exactly sure why that is. Some of it is probably due to all of the crime shows on TV that are so popular. Some of it is probably also due to the fact that a lot of the politicians who monopolize the airwaves are lawyers or former lawyers.

"Another bad tendency that lawyers have is to use two words where one will do. So lawyers have a tendency to say things like 'prior to' when they mean 'before,' or 'subsequent to' when they mean ‘after,’ or 'in the event that' where they mean 'if,' or 'with respect to' -- that's a lawyer's favorite, which just means 'about.' So I think there's more and more use of those sorts of circumlocutions by non-lawyers because they hear them around and they're in the air."

RS: "I bet freshman English teachers at universities probably cross those words out quite a bit."

FRANKLIN: "Yeah, there's probably a lot of red pencils working on those words even as we speak."

RS: "Mister Franklin, do you have a pet peeve?"

FRANKLIN: "(laughs) That's one of them. I think lawyers have a tendency to use the term 'fails to' to mean simply doesn't or can't. So they'll say 'if you fail to meet your deadline, certain results will follow.' I think that's sort of a fudge word, one of that really means 'if you don't get your paper in, I'll give you an F."

AA: "Well, you know what's funny, reporters do that a lot too. You see that in a lot in stories where what would be more appropriate would be to say 'does not' or 'did not.' I mean, 'failed to,' I remember someone pointing out to me, really meant you had made an effort but did not succeed."

FRANKLIN: "Right, 'I failed to get my golf score down to a zero handicap' -- meaning I tried but didn't get there. Another pet peeve that I have is nominalizations. And I think lawyers do lead the way in this bad direction. Lawyers have a tendency to convert verbs into nouns. So often we talk about the opposite, where people convert nouns into verbs and they say, you know, 'that movie really impacted me emotionally.' But I think lawyers have the tendency to go in the other direction. So instead of talking about what someone knows, they'll say 'did you have knowledge of Mister Smith's activities? Did you have knowledge of Mister Smith's conduct?"

RS: "Instead of did you know about his conduct."

FRANKLIN: "'Did you know what Mister Smith was doing?' So they've avoided knowing and doing and they've put them into noun forms, knowledge and activity. Or they'll say 'an adequate justification was not provided for the employee's termination.' Which simply means no one told us why the guy was fired."

AA: David Franklin is a visiting professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, and a contributor to the law journal, The Green Bag.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our programs are on the Web at And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Talk to My Lawyer"/Chuck Brodsky