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:

You and your spouse agree that the marriage cannot be saved.
You and your spouse have no minor or dependent child(ren) together, the wife does not have any minor or dependent children born during the marriage, and the wife is not now pregnant.
You and your spouse have worked out how the two of you will divide the things that you both own (your assets) and who will pay what part of the money you both owe (your liabilities), and you are both satisfied with this division.
You are not seeking support (alimony) from your spouse, and vice versa.
You and your spouse have filed financial affidavits with the court or you have waived the filing of financial affidavits and you are satisfied with the financial disclosure received from the other spouse.
You are willing to give up your right to trial and appeal. You and your spouse are both willing to go into the clerk’s office to sign the petition (not necessarily together).
You and your spouse are both willing to go to the final hearing (at the same time)".


SMOG - Simple Measure of Gobbledygook


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,

“My readability formula SMOG estimates the years of education needed to understand a piece of writing. SMOG is widely used, particularly for checking health messages”.

The Federal Trade Commission requires that health messages for the public be written at no higher than a fifth grade reading level. I believe there should be a similar requirement for legal messages to the public issued by the government.


SMOG Results


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:

"You and your spouse have worked out how the two of you will divide the things that you both own (your assets) and who will pay what part of the money you both owe (your liabilities), and you are both satisfied with this division."

We suggest the following edit:
You and your spouse have decided how you will divide the things that you own together. And you and your spouse have decided who will pay which part of your joint debts.


... official ...
"You and your spouse have filed financial affidavits with the court or you have waived the filing of financial affidavits and you are satisfied with the financial disclosure received from the other spouse."

... our edit ...
You and your spouse have filed or waived filing financial affidavits. You are both satisfied with the financial disclosure received from the other spouse."


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".

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