Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies

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Can contracts be both plain and precise?

Ian Siebörger, Ralph D Adendorff


One argument against the use of plain language in legal documents is that it is impossible to convey legal meanings in plain language with the same precision as  in specialist legal discourse (Hunt, 2003). We tested this claim by redrafting an extract from a lease agreement into plain English in three stages, producing three versions of the extract in progressively plainer English. We submitted these with  the original lease agreement to a senior advocate to elicit his opinion on whether the plain-language versions of the extract are equivalent to the original in legal force. Various differences between the versions are analysed using lexical semantics and Systemic Functional Grammar (as described in Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004). This analysis reveals that the redrafted versions could easily be altered to eliminate the difference between them and the original extract, and that ‘plain language’ as conceived by redrafters of official documents  may be easy for non-experts to read, but more difficult for experts. This demonstrates that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to readability is often not tenable, and that plain-language activists can learn much from research (such as Street, 1993) which asserts the existence of a plurality of literacies.

Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2011, 29(4): 483–504
AJOL African Journals Online