Monday, December 19, 2005

Against Latin

I have a bias against Latin in legal writing. I think Latin makes legal writing sound more complicated than it is or needs to be. I think legal Latin excludes nonlawyers. I think it serves only to brand writing as legal and writers as lawyers. Those aren't goals I support.

But not everyone agrees with me.

In fact, several of the Latinisms you'll see below were taken from a 1997 article called Latin in Legal Writing, by Peter R. Macleod.* Macleod's student note surveyed the use of ten Latin phrases--that are not terms of art--from three courts: the United States Supreme Court, the California Supreme Court, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He found that these nonessential Latin terms are either holding steady or actually gaining 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 prose. My position is this: if there is an everyday English equivalent, even if it is longer, use it.

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:
  • If a lawyer with 25 years' experience needs to study legal drafting, a fortiori a new lawyer needs to.
  • If a lawyer with 25 years' experience needs to study legal drafting, then a new lawyer needs to all the more.
"For the sake of argument." "For arguments' sake." The English phrases are longer, but better.

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

inter alia
"Among others; among other things." I first met this phrase in law school and wondered about it for weeks before looking it up. It struck me then, as it does now, as pompous and showy. I've never used it and suggest that you don't.

"Place." Use the English.

ratio decidendi
"Reason for a court's decision; rule on which a decision is based." Makes "the reason the court did what it did" into a lofty, intellectual exercise. Or at least makes it sound that way to the uninitiated. Replace it.

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" and "the case at bar" because it's not only fancy, it's Latin. Try "the present case," "our case," or restate the proper name: "the Peterson case."

vel non
"Or not." Use the English.

*39 B.C. L. Rev. 235 (1997).

--Excerpted from Better Legal Writing

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