Legalese versus Readability
To a writer, the struggle between readability and gobbledygook is as important as the struggle between good and evil. The battle for dominance is particularly important to legal writers. Gobbledygook has long been the evil king – readability the rebel. Legal writers writing court pleadings and contracts for other lawyers and judges are content to uphold the status quo – that is stick with the legalese and jargon. Keep the unlawyers out. Other legal writers, like me, who write for consumers and regular Joes are like translators, translating the arcane and obscure words into everyday language.
Excerpt from Pro Se form instructions:
The following paragraphs are from the instructions for the Petition for Simplified Dissolution of Marriage, Florida Supreme Court approved form 12.901(a), which was published on 10/1/2011:
"This form should be used when a husband and wife are filing for a simplified dissolution of marriage. You and/or your spouse must have lived in Florida for at least 6 months before filing for a dissolution in Florida. You may file a simplified dissolution of marriage in Florida if all of the following are true:
I plugged those paragraphs into Dr. G. Harry McLauglin's SMOG calculator. SMOG is an acronym for: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook. The SMOG calculator was developed in 1969 (imagine!) and back then you had to do the math yourself. It is based on the number of syllables in each word, number of words in each sentence, and number of letters in each word. Dr. McLaughlin states on his SMOG website,
The results were: SMOG: 12.17 -- which means that a reader needs slightly more than twelve years of school to read and comprehend the paragraphs. The average adult reading level in Florida is between the eighth and ninth grade. Included in the results are the following suggestions for improvement:
Sentences which we suggest you should consider to rewrite to improve readability of the text :
This is part of the official form:
... official ...
... our edit ...
I've Written About this Before ...
I've written about this issue before. I even wrote to the Florida Bar about the difficulty that people have in reading and understanding the instructions for pro se forms. The Florida Bar did not respond.
Legal Gobbledygook Examples
I found the following examples of legalese on Chicago-Kent College of Law site, posted as examples of “what not to do” for a legal writing course.
"As stated heretofore, the landlord's conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party".
"In this case, which involves a group of corporate directors who failed to properly represent the interests of the shareholders, the plaintiffs can not bring their claim in federal court because the plaintiffs and defendants were all citizens of the same state and the only issues to be tried were matters of state law".