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What’s that you say? Bar association releases plain language guide

When a guide to using legal jargon in everyday life offers as its first tip, “Familiarize yourself with Latin,” I’m pretty sure there’s a problem.

legal-jargonHow often do you find yourself looking at some sort of legal work, financial report or other important document, but unable to understand what’s on the page? Or maybe you can understand the words and how they combine to form sentences, but still have to read the same phrase over and over again in order to get it. Or maybe you find excessive use of jargon or buzzwords infuriating.

The use of legalese and jargon seems to be well entrenched in the business world, despite the latter changing constantly with the times. How many of these have you heard (or used) recently: game-changer, actionable, outside the box, blue-sky thinking, web 2.0, leveraging, disambiguate, HiPo, moving the goal posts?

And does this sound familiar?

If you fail to comply with your duty of disclosure and we would not have entered into the contract on any terms if the failure had not occurred, we may void the contract within three years of entering into it. If your non-disclosure is fraudulent, we may void the contract at any time. Where we are entitled to void a contract of life insurance we may, within three years of entering into it, elect not to void it but to reduce the sum that you have been insured for in accordance with a formula that takes into account the premium that would have been payable if you had disclosed all relevant matters to us.

It’s okay: you can scream. (Look here for a translation. It’s half as long—and intelligible!)

And rejoice! A growing group of advocates (I call them freedom fighters) is pushing for plain language in legal and other technical documents. First among them is probably the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN), whose mission statement is rather long-winded for an org devoted to concise communication.

Not too surprisingly, lawyers have resisted, commonly arguing that the complex ideas that the law expresses require complex language to describe. But some important players are onside: the Canadian Bar Association has expressed its support for plain language, and offers an informal guide on the topic, Plain Language Legal Writing. And Quebec’s Bar Association recently released its own plain language guide, Le langage clair: Un outil indispensable à l’avocat (Plain Language: an indispensible tool for lawyers). Unfortunately it’s available in French only.

For fun, or maybe to fill in the blanks in your next presentation, try this buzzword and jargon filled nonsense generator, which creates such gems as, “We need a more blue-sky approach to three-dimensional management processing.”

All of First Reference’s publications—Finance & Accounting PolicyPro, Information Technology PolicyPro, Not-for-Profit PolicyPro, Human Resources PolicyPro and the Human Resources Advisor—offer clear explanations of complicated topics for all readers.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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