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I am a resident of India. I have never been able to understand the language used in the legal documents here. Below is an example from an agreement to sell an apartment.

Herein after referred to as "THE FLAT PURCHASER/S" {Which expression shall unless it be repugnant to the context or meaning thereof shall mean and include his/her/their heirs, executors, administrators and assigners of the third part.

WHEREAS : A) The then Collector of Bombay by the letter dated 19/12/1936 granted land in reclamation lease to one [Mr.] Bhika Bala Pawar in respect of the property out of Khajan bearing Survey No. 263 (Pt), corresponding to CTS No. 6/A/12, admeasuring 10 acres or thereabouts situate, lying and being at Village Malvani, within the limits of...

The sentence goes on and on. I had to stop somewhere.

I would like to know if it

  1. is the language used everywhere (in English speaking world) in such documents;
  2. was the language used in last-century Britain;
  3. is just wrong English.
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Firstly, you are not expected to 'understand the language used' -- it's legalese. Furthermore, trying to draw your interpretations is not advisable. You must consult a legal professional who will advise you in plain English. –  Kris Oct 10 '12 at 6:43
    
Voting to close as not a real question. –  Kris Oct 10 '12 at 6:44
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@Kris I don't think that the OP is trying to understand the language used. He's trying to figure out if such language is used around the world and/or considered acceptable. I'm not sure if it's a constructive question. But all the repugnant admeasuring is interesting nonetheless :) –  coleopterist Oct 10 '12 at 7:19
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Please have a look at Why does legal English continue to remain archaic? It is very relevant here and has an excellent answer. –  RegDwigнt Oct 10 '12 at 9:08
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You might be interested in Clarity, "a worldwide group of lawyers and others who advocate using plain language in place of legalese". Their website is clarity-international.net –  Pitarou Oct 17 '12 at 5:30
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This is so called "legalese". A dialect used only in contracts, law documents and other court and law related sources. Not only it's valid English, it's written in such a way as to not leave any ambiguities, or room for interpretation, using phrases that don't occur in everyday English, but have specific properties of describing places, moments, locations without leaving room for ambiguity. "Whereas", "Herein" or "thereof" are quite uncommon in normal English, but abundant in legalese.

Think of it more like english-as-computer-language, than english usable for speaking; a trained lawyer can understand it fluently but it's very difficult to read for normal people. Ambiguous wording could be challenged in court — arguments about that can drag into months until the opponent drops the case discouraged by the opposite side taking every entry open for interpretation the opposite way it was intended, so lawyers use so called "boilerplates", document patterns used over and over, that were tested in court as leaving no doubts or ambiguities exploitable by opponents, and just fill in the plaintiff names, dates, objects of the cases, and submit that to the court or file away as legally binding contracts.

Answering:

  1. Yes, that's used pretty much everywhere. People who use a different language in their legal documents open themselves to irrelevant, lengthy attacks when using these in court — a tactic to wear off the opponent by dragging the case indefinitely becomes viable.

  2. As far as I know, "legalese" evolves much slower than mainstream English, so yes, a very similar language was used 100 years ago. Not only that, lots of words that fell out of use of mainstream English still live through legalese, their contemporary counterparts being more ambiguous, or just through tradition.

  3. It's correct, though horrible English. Grammar errors are an invitation for discussion "what the author intended", "what the sentence should mean" and as such, avoided at all cost. Still, the style (e.g. repetition, run-on sentences) is completely disregarded in favor of adherence to the "boilerplate".

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I am slightly surprised that it is considered grammatically correct. Glad I asked the question. –  Sameer Oct 10 '12 at 8:45
    
Great answer! This is why I come here. :) –  Pitarou Oct 10 '12 at 8:54
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The template used for the document in the OP's question can be found here. –  coleopterist Oct 10 '12 at 17:50
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This kind of abstruse legalese is intentionally incomprehensible. It has been regularly used by lawyers for centuries. It may very well be grammatically correct & meaningful, but what it means requires knowledge of the terminology & legal conventions of the country it was written in.

It isn't the language used everywhere in the Anglophone world these days. In the USA, contemporary legalese isn't always so difficult to understand. I don't know about other Anglophone countries, but I did study contract law and legal writing at an American law school. Even what is now supposed to be clear and easy-to-understand legalese is often very difficult to understand, but usually not this bad.

Calling it wrong implies two judgments.

One is a judgment on the grammatical correctness of the language. It probably is grammatically correct. This kind of language is often called boilerplate in the US. That means that it's standard and traditional.

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Another is a moral judgment about whether this kind of language should be used in legal documents. I'd say it's morally wrong because it's self-serving. Rather than make the contract clear to those who sign it, this kind of language serves only to require that they pay lawyers to read and argue about its meaning. The lawyers who write these documents, in other words, are what some economic theories call "job creators"; i.e., they intentionally create jobs for themselves and other pettifoggers by writing legal documents in a kind of secret code whose meaning must be argued over in a courtroom by lawyers and then decided upon by a judge and jury.

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Thanks, Bill. Good to get this perspective. –  Sameer Oct 10 '12 at 8:47
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I'm tempted to downvoted this answer because, as SF has so lucidly explained, the main reason for using legalese is not to generate documents "whose meanings must be argued over". The whole point is that the meaning has already been argued over, and firmly established. The lawyer is protecting his client from pointless, expensive legal disputes. Still, there certainly are certainly contexts where layman's confusion is exploited. –  Pitarou Oct 10 '12 at 8:52
    
@Pitarou: You are free to downvote for whatever reason. I'd argue that SF is wrong & that he's never studied contract law or even read legal disputes over the meaning of legal language. I'll use only one famous case in American constitutional law, without stating my position on it: 2nd Amendment. Read the arguments about the meaning of the language & read the theories that underlie the interpretations. The Amendment is not crystal clear. Ideally, the meaning of boilerplate is "firmly established". In reality, contracts are often intentionally filled with pools of legalese quicksand. –  user21497 Oct 10 '12 at 9:03
    
@Pitarou: Your argument is about What should be (I agree with what should be) but not about What is (I agree that the meaning of _some_ boilerplate is "firmly established"). –  user21497 Oct 10 '12 at 9:07
    
Appreciate the perspective of someone who's actually studied this stuff. +1 –  JAM Oct 10 '12 at 13:59
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protected by RegDwigнt Oct 10 '12 at 8:36

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