Do you read contracts? Who does? Why is legal language so incomprehensible for general public? This year, a paper titled “Poor writing, not specialized concepts, drives processing difficulty in legal language,” won the Ig Nobel Prize, which is a satiric prize awarded annually since 1991 to celebrate ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. They focus on discoveries that can make you laugh and think.
It is said that legal documents are hard for us to read because we don’t understand legal concepts, but this research proves that wrong. Check the following example.
A) In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, being hereinafter referred to as the ‘Total Payments’), would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced.
B) In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced. All payments and benefits by the Company shall hereinafter be referred to as the ‘Total Payments.’ This includes the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof.
B is much easier to comprehend than A, isn’t it? A includes low-frequency jargon. center-embedded clauses (leading to long-distance syntactic dependencies), passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization, relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English. When there are synonyms, legal documents tend to choose less popular words. So when they are rewritten in plain texts, comprehension is improved.
Please read the full report if you have time, because it’s really fascinating. It may help you understand Hemmingway Editor’s suggestions better or make you take a second look or another approach when you craft a story or prepare for a presentation next time.