At my university we receive mandated "Clery Crime Alerts" whenever various crimes are committed on campus. The police officer who writes these always uses the emphatic mood:

  • "The perpetrator did take the victim's bag", instead of
  • "The perpetrator took the victim's bag"

More examples can be found by googling the common phrase "the defendant did knowingly". Example (of >10000 hits):

"... the defendant did knowingly and unlawfully possess one plastic straw containing heroin residue ..."

Westchester County District Attorney

Why not "the defendant knowingly and unlawfully possessed"?

Is there some historical or technical justification for this usage or is this just traditional in the judicial system?

  • Actually the OP is asking two questions: one about traditional terminology in the judicial system and the other about crime alerts. The questioner should clarify the inquiry and provide evidence.
    – Xanne
    Sep 14, 2019 at 20:55
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Sep 15, 2019 at 1:39
  • @Xanne I have added another example, this one definitely from the "judicial system" (quote from a DA). I could be wrong but to me the usages in crime alerts and in court proceedings seem related enough for a single post.
    – cxrodgers
    Sep 15, 2019 at 16:41

3 Answers 3


The law profession and law enforcement have for many decades been noted, cited, criticized and ridiculed by English usage experts and amateurs for their own bloated, pompous, convoluted and often mangled and torturous use of the language. Legalese and police-speak plague us still, and this is one great example of pomposity. It’s so common there are movements and government efforts to get contracts, news releases and bureaucratic materials written in plain English most can understand.

Listen to or read the news. Perpetrators get shot ‘in the vicinity of downtown’, not ‘near downtown.’ They also get fatally stabbed ‘in the area of the heart.’ The question is about ‘did knowingly’ but one can also question ‘unlawfully possessed’ in such context. It’s about charges, allegations, testimony in court etc, and ‘unlawully’ can often be reasonably assumed. In court it will have to be proven in any event.

Legalese is this:

In witness whereof the parties hereunto have set their hands to these presents as a deed on the day month and year hereinbefore mentioned.

Plain English is this:

Signed on (date):_________

Police seldom use ‘car’ invariably use ‘vehicle.” They don’t use ‘person,’ prefering ‘the party that’. They don’t answer yes or no, they say affirmative or negative. Kids are juveniles and a juvenile party never gets out of the car, he exits the vehicle. And I don’t know if I did answer the query, but I did try a response!

  • 2
    Overuse of emphatic do is merely one of many such ingroup jargon terms encountered in law and police work environments. The same can be said of machine-shop, military, or medical environments, except that they change much more rapidly than laws and customs. American judicial systems don't require horsehair wigs, at least. Oct 2, 2019 at 20:04

This should not be surprising. According to the Farlex Book of Grammar's Mood section:

We usually use emphatic do to stress the fact that something is the case.

Courtroom proceedings are largely concerned with doing two things:

The first is settling questions of law to determine how the law might apply to a certain case, and the other is determining questions of fact to determine if the relevant laws have really been violated:

question of fact n. in a lawsuit or criminal prosecution, an issue of fact in which the truth or falsity (or a mix of the two) must be determined by the "trier of fact" (the jury or the judge in a non-jury trial) in order to reach a decision in the case. A "question of fact" may also be raised in a motion for summary judgment which asks the court to determine whether there are any questions of fact to be tried, allowing the judge to rule on the case (usually to dismiss the complaint) at that point without a trial.

(Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill)

The U.S. political system was founded on the basis of fear of unjust government, and not just from the executive or legislative branches. A courtroom known as the Star Chamber is quite infamous for violations of basic human rights such as overly long proceedings, ordering inhumane punishments and most relevantly unfair trials..

As such, there is a strong emphasis in the U.S. legal system on avoiding the conviction of the potentially innocent. According to the C.A.T.O. institute's webpage on the Blackstone Ratio, William Blackstone wrote, "[B]etter that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer." and Benjamin Franklin increased that ratio by tenfold, by writing that "it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer." The basic principle here is that a powerful government run amok can cause so much more damage to the general populous than even the criminals, so judicial proceedings need to be handled with the appropriate care as to not harm the innocent.

In criminal cases, the standard is that a suspect is presumed innocent, until their guilt is not only proven but proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is even a slight chance that the defendant did not take the bag, then it is possible that this standard of evidence is not met. Civil cases have a lower standard of evidence, but even then the emphatic mood can still still helps to indicate that the necessary standard of evidence to determine a matter of fact has been exceeded.

This is probably particularly important for when a case is appealed, and a higher judge has the opportunity to review the case. By using the emphatic mood a courtroom emphasizes that this is not a disputable opinion, but a finding of fact that not only satisfies, but exceeds the standard of evidence required by the case, so as to justify the verdict and penalty, reducing the odds that the finding will be remanded back to the lower court or overturned.

So my principal hypothesis is that expresses that nothing was left up to chance. There is also a certain rhetorical appeal to emphasis, which is why hyperbole exists, but that applies to just about every subject irrespective of nature.

Aside from that, once a lingual practice has been adopted by the courtroom, it is very difficult to cease. Plain language initiatives often leave matters open to interpretation that were previously settled through precedent and left alone due to the principle of stare decisis.

  • +1 for the interesting observation about the nuanced emphasis that evidence in court needs to be factual.
    – Lawrence
    Oct 2, 2019 at 23:38

Court filings and judicial opinions use a different register of English than common speech. They are drafted in such a way that they will achieve their purpose and not get overturned or rejected, and that involves careful attention to precedents and authorities (this is a common law jurisdiction, after all). So all of these are very sound motivations for having a somewhat insular and conservative system of language. This of course means using all sorts of formulaic expressions that would be out of place in other registers, and which often preserve remnants of archaic versions of English or use idiosyncratic Latin and French calques. Do-support for assertive verum focus would be a good example.

  • 1
    This is an interesting take. Can you expand upon it or add some supporting evidence?
    – David M
    Oct 3, 2019 at 0:03

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