Legal jargon is notoriously difficult in any language. However, the specific terminology and grammar of the language used in a contract in English is not that extensive.

Understanding a contract

Legal jargon is notoriously difficult in any language. However, the specific terminology and grammar of the language used in a contract in English is not that extensive.

Why is Legal English So different from everyday English?

All legal expression in any language has to be more precise than everyday language because it must leave no room for misinterpretation. For example, there are expressions like “if and only if” to ensure that people realise that one thing is only true if the condition is fulfilled.
However, this does not account for all the idiosyncrasies of legal English. Legalese is also different because after the Norman conquest in 1066 those who made the laws were speaking Norman French while the rest of the population were speaking English. Latin also influenced the language of law much more than everyday English. This is why legal English is often much closer to romance languages than modern English. For example, legal English says “terminate” where normal English would say “finish”. By the 17th Century, many French and Latin words had become established in law, for example “tort”.
Finally, general English is very permeable to influence from other languages. By contrast, the language of law is very traditional. Many legal expressions like “hereto”, “to whom”, etc. were common in general English several centuries ago, but have been replaced in modern English by other expressions.

Below, I offer you the most important elements of “legalese” in contracts.

Legal Grammar

The only important grammatical element of “legalese” is the use of “shall” (with all persons) and the use of “to be to”, both of which mean “must”, e.g.:
… the agent is to execute the order…
…the agent shall execute the order…
This use of “shall” is very common in the “legal” conditional e.g.
…if the lessor fails to notify the lessee, then he shall be considered…
Notice that his type of condition uses “if…then” where normal modern English would not include “then”.

The normal word to use to express discretion is “may” e.g.
Either party may declare the contract null and void if…

Referring backwards and forwards

There are three ways of saying “which I just referred to”
…the above-mentioned waiver
…the aforementioned waiver
…said waiver

Special legalese vocabulary

• to deem: judge, consider
• to be entitled to: have a right to
• breach of contract: non-fulfilment of a contract
• in accordance with: according to
• in compliance with: fulfilling, satisfying
• notwithstanding: despite, in spite of
• null and void: invalid, with no legal power
• persons: people
• third party: other people
• to set forth: describe
• to terminate: finish
• to waive: give up (a right), relinquish
• waiver: giving up of a right, voluntary relinquishment

T/Here + preposition combinations

• hereafter: below, after the signing of this document
• thereafter: after that time
• hereby: by this contract
• thereby: by that document, by that action
• herein: in this contract
• therein: in that document
• hereof: of or concerning this contract
• thereof: of that document
• hereto: to this contract
• thereto: to that document
• heretofore: earlier in this document, mentioned previously
• theretofore: before that time
• hereunder: later in this document
• thereunder: later in that document
• herewith: with this document
• therewith: with that document

Copyright, 1999-2006. All rights reserved. -
Understanding a contract
Author: Analia Cassano
United States
English to Spanish translator 
By Analia Cassano
Published on 09/7/2009
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