Recently, one user has been posting a large, but by no means overwhelming, number of questions that can be very broadly paraphrased as "I've been reading a law textbook – why does this sentence have unusual grammar?" (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 in the last couple of days).

Legal English has its own very distinct and distinctive style and vocabulary that deviates in various ways from "normal" English – for example, contracts tend to be written without or with very few commas. The answer to most of these questions is, essentially, "That's just how lawyers write; you wouldn't write it that way in ordinary English."

Are questions about the style and meaning of legal English really on-topic, here? They don't seem likely to be useful to most people who are learning English as a foreign language. Most learners won't be attempting to read law texts because they're so difficult to understand even to native speakers who aren't experts in that area.

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    Additionally, this particular user has asked for advice about asking, about topicality, and about other resources here, as well as asked about several closed questions 1 2 3.
    – choster
    Nov 20 '14 at 18:07
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    I think that the questions have been getting better than they were before when they were more about reading comprehension than language and grammar. I think that this is along the same lines as headlinese. Very focused questions about language that happens to be legal might be OK and the questions that are too broad, unclear, or otherwise off-topic get closed for those reasons, not because there is legal language in them. I think it is best to go on a case by case basis, especially when a poster has shown that they are willing to put some effort in to keep their questions on topic.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 20 '14 at 20:35
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    Possibly related: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/1224/9161 And I disagree that it is exceedingly rare that a learner would be faced with legal language. They might not be reading a law text, but they could be faced with a contract that they really need to understand well.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 20 '14 at 20:37
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    @ColleenV I take your point about wanting to read contracts, though this is not a good place to get advice on what a contract means. However, questions 1 and 2 from my list of 6 are very definitely "I was reading this law textbook; why is the grammar they're using not what I would expect." Nov 20 '14 at 20:53
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    My perspective is that the source of the question isn't as important as the quality of the question. There have been questions about standard English that are similar and I don't think that a question should be treated differently just because it's from a law text. Whether something is on-topic and might be useful to more than one person has a lot of gray area, but I think it is worthwhile gray area. We should all use our best judgement and trust that collectively we will be able to sort out the trickier questions rather than create a strict checklist of on and off topic qualities.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 20 '14 at 21:14
  • There are tens of thousands of law students all over the world having to study law in English. These folks are still honing their Englishand are still language learners. The questions being asked don't relate to legal English in particular, they're just questions about English from legal texts. Who cares where the texts come from? We aim to be an inclusive site, I hope, here. I don't mind reading about or answering questions about chiropractic English as long as the questions are about English and are reasonably well written. I'd even read questions about football English. I hate football! Dec 3 '14 at 2:46

Just to summarize my thoughts -

Legalese is similar to headlinese in that the rules are different from standard English, but not haphazard. The degree of difference is much greater than headlinese and it is significantly more difficult for someone not familiar with legalese to determine the correct interpretation strictly from looking at the grammar and context. Headlinese is meant to be understood by most readers and although it is not as precise as legalese, the meaning can usually be understood without any specialized knowledge by looking at the headline's article for context.

On the other hand, learners are exposed to legalese even if they don't read law textbooks. Sometimes a learner may want to know whether something strange they've seen is part of standard English or legalese, or have a general idea of what the legalese passage is describing even though they aren't asking for a legal interpretation.

In my opinion, if a question can be answered from an English language perspective it shouldn't matter what type of text caused the question. If the question can't be answered from an English language perspective, it should be closed for that reason and not because of the source of the question. I do think that many more legalese questions are likely to be closed than other types of questions, but I don't think that they should be closed out of hand.

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    I don't agree with the significantly more difficult to determine the correct interpretation assessment of legalese. To my mind, on average it's actually easier to determine the exact intent of a legal text, because in most cases the wording is specifically intended to remove unwanted ambiguity (so it's often safe to assume any apparent ambiguity is intended). Legalese may well be more difficult for less competent speakers to understand, but that's more to do with their linguistic competence in realms beyond casual speech. It's not inherent in the style itself. Nov 23 '14 at 16:55
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    @FumbleFingers You're right that I should have explained who I thought it was more difficult for. It is easier to unambiguously interpret legalese if you familiar with it. Almost any native speaker could interpret a headline if they had acces to the full context, but because the language is less precise it might not be as unambiguous as the legalese.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 23 '14 at 17:03
  • You're quite right that "headlinese" is far more prone to ambiguity that requires an understanding of context to resolve. I don't know if "Bowler's Holding, batsman's Willey" ever appeared as a headline, but that type of ambiguity is always arising in such contexts. We just don't usually notice unless the "perverse" interpretation has something going for it (i.e. - humour) because the intended sense is invariably obvious anyway. Nov 23 '14 at 17:32
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    @Fumble legalese often coerces specific readings or meanings of words which have fallen out of use in general language; you'd need to know that the specific, outdated meaning is the one intended, to be able to answer the question. I don't think it's necessarily the competency of the user in English that determines their ability to comprehend legal texts, but rather their exposure to an familiarity with legal texts.
    – jimsug
    Nov 28 '14 at 3:20

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