While researching the differences between modern penal codes with common law I noticed that in many places it is written as at common law. An example is, "A crime at common law defined as unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman by a man without her consent and by means of fear or force." Does anyone know why it is worded this way?

  • Specifically, are you asking about the use of the word at as opposed to, say, in or under? If that's the case, judicious use of bold text in your question may help make it clearer.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:35
  • 3
    I wonder whether 'at' in this use is a calque of the French proposition 'à', which has a much wider range of meaning in French, including "within the category of/to be classified as/belonging to", as in "c'est à moi" (belonging) or "chicken à l'anglaise' (classification: chicken in the English style). Compare oyez's history: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyez
    – Merk
    Jun 15, 2014 at 7:34

2 Answers 2


I think the reason is because back in the day in England there were different courts. There were common law courts, courts of chancery, ecclesiastical courts, and I think there was more but can't remember the names. Depending upon what you did wrong, you would be tried in whatever court had the jurisdiction, or maybe you could end up in more than one court for the same crime, I don't know. I would have to research that part, but anyway, I hope that was helpful.


The "at" is used to note the state of the crime. It was a crime at common law.

And really you are reading the "at" because many law books use standards dating back a few hundred years. So you will see a lot of sequencing and paraphrasing that may not seem "modern". That is just the norm.

I would think that current usage is more along the lines of "common law crime".

  • The legal people think they should be able to make their own rules. Jun 4, 2014 at 19:57
  • @EdwinAshworth - Don't we seem a little smarter if we use 18th century sentence configuration? Lawyers need to at least appear smart right? Jun 4, 2014 at 20:37
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    @EdwinAshworth Lawyers hold on to old usage because it has precedential value - courts have held OldX to mean Y, and if a lawyer imprudently substitutes NewX the courts may hold that to be clear evidence that she means something other than Y. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Jun 4, 2014 at 20:56
  • I daren't comment. Jun 4, 2014 at 21:18
  • @StoneyB - I was prelaw in the late 90s and supposedly there was a trend away from this and actually a couple of judges came in and said they push for what they called "common English". I think this was due to lawyers butchering the older phrases. Jun 5, 2014 at 2:02

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