How to Avoid Legalese and Other Highfalutin Wordiness

Published on March 18, 2024 From The Editors

A customized lexicon helps professionals communicate efficiently with peers. If a certain term or phrase has a precise meaning within a profession, members of that profession don’t need to waste time clarifying which lay interpretation of a term they mean.

Much can hang on subtlety. For example, in the U.S. Army, a mission to “seize” an objective usually requires physical occupation, whereas a mission to “secure” an objective doesn’t—a difference that can cost lives if misunderstood.

And between professions, the same term can have vastly different meanings. Take the word retainer, for example, which means something completely different to an attorney than it does to an orthodontist.

All that being said, sometimes language specific to a profession can get out of hand and hinder more than help, especially in professions with long histories and formal traditions. It’s no surprise, because even everyday writers sometimes subconsciously inflate language to impress.

Legalese Might Do More Harm than Good 

The line between unnecessary legalese and plain old language inflation gets so fuzzy that discussing legalese restraint also requires discussing restraint with all language inflation. For example, the word utilize isn’t legalese, but it frequently surfaces in legal documents and can almost always be replaced with its plain cousin use without losing anything other than that artificial attempt at credibility.

Some legalese can outright muddy interpretation, such as the frustratingly common “as to” and “with respect to,” which in most instances only establish a vague relationship. Any of the following substitutions might more precisely narrow that relationship: about, by, for, in, in accordance with, into, involving, of, on, to, under, or with.

Some legalese can also become inaccurate as a draft develops. For example, if a document is rearranged and part of what was once hereinafter is moved above, the document will likely contain disjointed or unnecessary legalese. The better practice is to use something like in this agreement, or even delete hereinafter entirely. For example, instead of writing, “this license agreement (hereinafter ‘Agreement’),” simply write, “this license agreement (‘Agreement’).”

Use Concise Language to Get to the Point Faster 

Unchecked artificial inflation skews toward the ridiculous, so much so that it becomes a joke. Take this famous bit of dialogue from Monty Python, for example: “Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count. Neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three.”* While clearly satirical, this sort of linguistic overkill is sadly not limited to parody.

Overly wordy documents and excessive legalese take longer to get the point across and may even lead to unnecessary interpretation disputes. Keeping a document’s language clear and concise also saves time and helps clients understand what you need from them or what they need to do for their case. Why waste time and a client’s money writing an entire paragraph on counting to three when a few words do the job better: “Count to three.”

Clear Language Can Improve a Complicated Drafting Process

As most practitioners know, credibility comes from substance. Credibility may be derived from a sound argument; the clearly conveyed terms of an agreement; or colloquial, on-point witness statements, which are more likely to pass muster with fact finders anyway. Without artifice to lean on, writing stands or falls based solely on its merits, so plain language improves even the most complicated drafting process.

Ensure Your Writing Makes Sense to the Least-Informed Reader

It’s paramount that documents make sense to their least-informed targeted readers. In particular, text meant to be shared with clients, juries, or anyone else outside of the legal profession should be written in plain and simple language to the extent that the subject matter allows. If there’s no avoiding certain legal terms without undermining accuracy or precision, those terms should be retained along with any clear and concise definitions necessary for the intended audience.

There’s a difference between the useful parts of a professional lexicon and superfluous pompous verbosity—er, I mean, “highfalutin wordiness.”

Use Plain Text Substitutions to Clarify Writing

While keeping in mind that exceptions exist and that on occasion legalese is clearer than trying to write around it, here are some examples of plain-text substitutions that can often clarify writing.

Click here to download a PDF of this chart.


Legalese or Other Ambiguity or Excess


Plain Text

abutting; adjacent to; contiguous to next to
all, but not less than all all
and/or In most instances, the word or alone will suffice. If prohibitive, for example, “shall not x or y,” the exclusion of both is inherent. If permissive or obligatory, for example, “may x or y” or “shall x or y,” inclusion of both could be inferred, so it’s better to clarify, for example, “x, y, or both” or “x or y but not both.”
anterior to; previous to; prior to Use before instead. These phrases less the “to” are excellent word choices when used as adjectives, such as with “previous meetings” or “prior arrangements,” but there’s no need to pair them with “to” when before does that job by itself.
any and all all
as to; with respect to Try about, by, for, in, in accordance with, into, involving, of, on, to, under, or with instead.
as to whether Try whether, on, or about instead.
biennial; biannual The word biennial means every two years; biannual by differentiation usually means twice a year. For the latter, however, use twice a year for clarity, and consider using every two years for the former.
bimonthly Use every two months or twice a month, whichever is accurate.
biweekly Use every two weeks or twice a week, whichever is accurate.
e.g.; i.e. Some writers confuse these abbreviations. Consider using for example or that is instead. Even if the writer is aware of the difference between exempli gratia and id est, the entire intended audience might not be, and readers need to know whether whatever follows is the thing in its entirety or only an example.
hereby Use for a statement that is itself the legal action (for example, “the secretary is hereby authorized to”). Avoid otherwise.
hereinbefore; hereinafter Use above or below; or better, in this agreement or similar; or best, if nothing is lost, delete entirely.
heretofore up to now
other here- words (for example, herein, hereon, hereto, hereunder, herewith) Consider using in this exhibit, on this order, to this agreement, or similar.
if and when Use either if or when. These words create different expectations. Choose the one that’s accurate.
if or when if
in order for; in order to Use simply for or to, unless no longer clear.
in the event; in the event that if
per annum per year; annually
period of time; time period If the time frame is also included, delete these phrases entirely. For example, instead of “three-year period of time,” use “three years.” If the time frame is not included, use either time or period instead of both. For example, instead of “after that time period,” use “after that time” or “after that period.”
point in time Use either point or time. Both aren’t necessary.
said; such (used adjectivally) a; that; the; these; this; those
such (noun) For greatest clarity, consider repeating the antecedent instead.
subsequent to after
the following and only the following only the following
therefor (do not confuse with therefore) for it; for that
other there- words (for example, thereby, therefrom, therein, thereof, thereon, thereto, thereunder, therewith) Consider using from that, in it, or similar. For greater clarity, repeat the antecedent instead. For example, instead of “may rely thereon,” use “may rely on that signature.”
until such time as until
upon on (unless meaning “on the occurrence of”)
utilize use

* Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Python (Monty) Pictures, Michael White Productions, and National Film Trustee Company 1975).

This article was written in collaboration with Publications Attorney Nicholas J. Goddard.


Roger Siebert

Roger Siebert

Roger Siebert is senior editor at Texas Bar Books, where he has worked for eighteen years. Roger earned a BA in English at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and an MA in creative writing at Florida State University, where he also taught first-year composition. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and rowing his homemade boat.

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