CONTRACT LANGUAGE DETRACTS

One of the ways many people try to make their business writing sound more impressive is to try to make it a bit lawyerly. The legal community has long had a unique style and syntax that’s meant to create clarity, but that is often far more effective at obfuscating the meaning. I suspect it may be an attempt to ensure the ongoing demand for the profession, because one generally needs to hire an attorney to understand something another attorney has written.

But I’m not here to offend attorneys (nor to incur their wrath). I’m here to help companies and other organizations communicate more clearly, and one way they can do that is to stop trying to write like attorneys.

You’ll see it show up in several ways. One that always strikes me as peculiar is borrowing the contract-writing technique of adding parentheses and a numerical value whenever a number is mentioned. “Our company has three (3) divisions.” “Please send us four (4) copies of your application.”  Since we already know that “three’ means 3, repeating the value in parentheses is superfluous, wasteful, interruptive, and just downright confusing.

Another common example is capitalizing a common noun that substitutes for a proper one. Accounting firms and banks are notorious for this. “Ms. Jones joined the Firm in September 2008.” “You can visit any of the Bank’s branches to apply.” If you’re writing a contract, you should capitalize those words when they legally represent your business. If there’s a clause early on that says something like “First Merchants and Spelunkers National Bank (hereafter “Bank”) will …,” then you should do it. But there’s no need to add those capitals in informal communications such as letters and ads.

There’s another good reason to avoid the use of legal language in your writing: you’re probably not a lawyer. I was working with a bank that asked me to take a look at a letter a loan officer had written to a customer who was in default. The loan officer had taken the time to sound very lawyerly, and didn’t realize that his convoluted wording had inadvertently shifted the liability from the borrower to the bank.

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