Thursday, June 09, 2005

Avoid unnecessary Latin

I have a bias against Latin in legal writing. I think Latin makes legal writing sound more complicated than it is, and it excludes nonlawyers. To me, it serves only to brand writing as legal and writers as lawyers. Those aren’t goals I support. So I generally condemn Latin.

But not everyone agrees with me.

In fact, several of the Latinisms on my hit list below appeared in a 1997 article called Latin in Legal Writing, by Peter R. Macleod. Macleod’s student note surveyed the use of ten Latin phrases--and none is a term of art--from the written opinions of three courts: the United States Supreme Court, the California Supreme Court, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He found that over the previous ten years, these nonessential Latin terms did not fade away; they either held steady or actually gained in use in judicial opinions.*

I find that odd, and I wonder why it should be so. Do judges feel that using Latin enhances their sense of belonging to a learned profession? Perhaps. But one thing is clear, their use of Latin does not enhance the clarity of their written opinions. My position is this: if there is an everyday English equivalent, even if it is longer, use it instead of Latin

So here’s my list, with comments.

ab initio
“From the beginning.” That’s a better phrase, so use it.

a fortiori
“Even more so.” Use that English phrase or revise around the Latin.

“For the sake of argument; for arguments’ sake.” These English phrases are longer, but better.

de minimis
“Minimal; insignificant.” Both are better than the Latin phrase.

inter alia
“Among others; and others.” Pompous twaddle. I’ve never used it. Ever.

sua sponte
“On its own; on its own motion.” The English is longer but better.

sub judice
“Before the court; under consideration here.” This phrase is even worse than “instant case” because it’s not only fancy, it’s Latin. Try “this case,” “our case,” or restate the proper name: “the Peterson case.”

vel non
“Or not.” Use the English.

*Peter R. Macleod, student author, Latin in Legal Writing: An Inquiry Into the Use of Latin in the Modern Legal World, 39 B.C. L. Rev. 235, 236, 239 (1997).

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