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Tradition and Change in Legal English

Verbal Constructions in Prescriptive Texts


Christopher Williams

In this volume the author examines verbal constructions in prescriptive legal texts written in English. Modal auxiliaries such as shall, may and must are analysed, as well as indicative tenses such as the present simple, and also non-finite constructions such as the -ing form and -ed participles. Results are based on specially compiled corpora of prescriptive texts coming from a wide range of English-speaking countries and also international organizations such as the European Union and the UN. The author also analyses the nature, extent and impact of the calls for change in legal language coming from the Plain Language Movement. Although legal language tends to be depicted as being highly conservative and unchanging, the author shows that in certain parts of the English-speaking world a minor revolution would appear to be taking place, while in other parts there is greater resistance to change.


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Introduction 11


Introduction Most people manage to get through life without ever acquiring a de- tailed knowledge of the laws which regulate their daily lives. The spe- cialized knowledge of such matters is essentially the domain of the so- called legal professions, constituted mainly by lawyers and judges who are crucially involved in the job of interpreting the laws and regulations that have been drafted. Interpreting the intention of the lawmakers and those who drafted a particular law inevitably entails a detailed scrutiny of the language used. It could be a question of defining the boundaries of given lexical items. For example, in recent years there has been much discussion within the European Union as to which ingredients may or may not be included in the production of chocolate. At which point does chocolate legally cease to be chocolate and have to be labelled – by law – as something else? The so-called EU Chocolate Directive in force since August 2003 lays down specific criteria as to how terms such as ‘chocolate’, ‘milk chocolate’ and ‘cocoa powder’ must be used, as well as allowing a maximum of five per cent of non-cocoa vegetable fats to be used – a measure contested by a number of choco- late-producing companies that consider the inclusion of such fats as conflicting with the ‘essence’ of what chocolate is meant to be. The mere absence of a definite article in an expression can give rise to heated and prolonged interpretative debate. For example, the famous United Nations Security Council Resolution...

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